Between Wrecks, by George Singleton
Review by Hector Mojena
In George Singleton’s Between Wrecks, the South is as much a physical space as it is an ever-present theme. A psycho-geography rich in images of familial implosion, dead-end jobs, and the always searing heat is mapped out in Singleton’s prose, embracing the decaying south in all its dark and surreal splendor. Framed by his own experiences in a low-level Southern studies residency, Between Wrecks follows Singleton as he interviews various subjects for his thesis work by asking questions about what they believe constitutes Southern identity. From that central question springs a whole narrative world that touches on Singleton’s life growing up in and around North Florida and his own subjects’ confrontations with the foreboding stretches of the American south.
Like David Lynch’s own cracked meditations on Americana, Singleton’s prose often plays best when it embraces absurd moments that simultaneously convey the violence both physical and epistemological of Southern clashes of class, race, religion. It’s that subtle edge that informs much of the writing in this collection, the constant reminders of death that appear all around Singleton’s cast of characters. In Which Rocks We Choose, he charts his parentage through the stones left in a rock quarry of which he observes at narrative’s end “[contains] enough rocks piled up to bury a grave.” Much of the collection mines these textual memento-moris and extracts a kind of gallows humor from every failed relationship and personal conflict he encounters. In Bait, Singleton remembers a teenaged impostor named Frankie that his parents insist is a childhood friend come to stay for the summer, only to find that he neither remembers him nor appreciates the interest he has taken in his mother and Frankie’s obsession with his own exquisitely detailed murder fantasies. So goes one of his schemes in which he describes framing “somebody you already hate” for a murder by dragging the dead body into the bed of your adversary.
Many of Singleton’s stories follow suit in framing the violence and despair he encounters through the darkly absurd figures and places he encounters. So too it goes in Tongue, a story as much about the mundane objects that people leave in their rental cars – “You can imagine the usual – CD’s, hairs, brushes, spare change…” – as much as it is about the considerably odd artifacts that people part with, like the discarded eight balls of cocaine, titular hydrostats, and William Faulkner novels Singleton and his staff find left behind. Not coincidentally, Singleton’s Faulkner-ian pre-occupation with the intersections of sex, death, and Southern identity informs the very thematic pull of his work, lending his narratives strands of fatalism and irony that endure and compel even as the stories themselves never become quite as foreboding as Faulkner’s.
Though he does not shy away from more violent actualizations of his themes, many of the stories in this collection thrive on a subtle menace that informs the humor he extracts from the many anecdotes and exchanges he writes. Through it all, his characters’ studied mannerisms and accidental sparks of wisdom keep Between Wrecks compelling, even as some of his stories start to settle into a familiar pattern of thematic repetition. Singleton’s Between Wrecks certainly makes the mundane stretches of flyover country into a geography of accidental poetry, drawing for the reader a vision of Southern life that is saturated by elements of the the pastoral, the Southern gothic, and Singleton’s always biting humor. He deftly renders peculiar narratives steeped in the often absurd and beguiling rituals of the American south, constructing a geography steeped in the despair and surreal humor that has been Singleton’s literary calling card.
Hector Mojena is a writer and sometime editor currently based in Tallahassee, Florida. In addition to publishing work in magazines such as Strangeways and editing for the Miami Rail, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen.