April 14: “Between Wrecks” by George Singleton

Here we are with another Thursday on Story366. It’s a beautiful day here in Springfield, Missouri, and if I didn’t have spring allergies, I’d say it was perfect. Ironic, isn’t it, the most beautiful time of the year, in terms of all the dogwoods and lilacs and azaleas blooming, and the best weather, sunny and 70 every day, but it’s the worst I feel all year. My sinuses feel like someone parked my dad’s old Buick LeSabre behind my nose. But man, the azaleas!

Karen is out of town, and so far, the boys and I haven’t murdered each other. I got them settled in front of some cartoons with juice boxes and it looked like I was going to get this post knocked out, but then the neighbor kids wrapped on the door and the kid count has suddenly doubled (update: I’m up to five). I’m holding them at bay with cartoons and juice boxes, but I’m running low on the latter. I should get to the story before the house catches fire.

Today I’m writing about one of the great American story writers and humorists, George Singleton. He’s the author of seven books of stories, three novels, and a book about how to write stuff. I’ve enjoyed his work for a very long time and had the privilege of publishing a couple of his stories in Mid-American Review back in the day. He’s also a personal influence to me, as his stories feel easy, but as a writer, I know how complex they are, how hard it is to manage so many variables and still write such good fiction. On top of all that, be funny, and George Singleton is one of the funniest writers out there.

“Between Wrecks,” the title story from Between Wrecks, the first of two recent collections Singleton put out on Dzanc, is one of those stories that just seems so easy, but is so incredibly complicated. Singleton’s stories usually start with a guy (yes, usually a guy) in an odd part of his life, and by odd, I mean that the guy’s got himself into some sort of jam, some sort of stage where he’s not exactly living under the viaduct, but things are about to fall apart. Yet, they seem to have things under control, some sort of plan, aren’t overly worried about it. Stet Looper, the protagonist of “Between Wrecks,” fits that general description. He’s a fifty-something guy living in South Carolina and has a whole sack of bachelor’s degrees in various liberal arts, and is currently working on a “low-residency master’s program at Ole-Miss Taylor,” a phrase that’s repeated, verbatim, throughout: That’s because Stet isn’t convinced that he’ll finish. It’s a neat character trait, someone who flat-out excels at being an undergrad, but can’t cut it in grad school. In baseball, they call that a Four-A player, the guy who rips up Triple A, but then can’t hit a lick in the Majors. It’s just one of the little touches that Singleton drips throughout his stories, one of those complexities I was talking about. “Between Wrecks” is full of them.

In addition to the college thing, Stet’s pregnant wife has left him, stowed away in Minnesota to raise their child away from Stet. He’s also running his family’s river stone company into the ground; his father, for decades, funded his BA habit, with one condition: Stet come back when he dies to carry on the family business. Stet’s not cut out for that, either, and as the story begins, a local woman named Sally Renfrew comes by his house and apologizes for stealing a pallet of river stones so she can make fake Indian arrowheads and sell them at her Indian arrowhead shop outside of Myrtle Beach. She’s honesting up, but wants to cut Stet a deal. Stet, not really wanting the stones back, cuts Sally a deal, giving her the stones, but somehow ends up hanging out with Sally’s teenage son, who’s giving up college to become a stand-up comedian.

What’s great about everything I describe above is twofold. Firstly, all of this happens in the first page or so of the story, Singleton liking to establish everything right away, then just letting his characters run loose (something else I borrow from him). Secondly, that’s pretty much the story. It’s rather typical of Singleton to base a story on something so absurd, so simple, but so original. River rock deal, hang out with teenage wannabe comedian. Boom! Write a terrific twenty-page story, truly one I’ve not read before.

In the place of some grand plot or MacGuffin to chase after, what sustains “Between Wrecks,” all of Singleton’s stories, are those little touches, characters moving through Singleton’s world, running into situations, running into other oddball characters. At a local diner, Stet and young Stan Renfrew come upon a couple of weirdos, weirdoes who just happen to be diner regulars. One guy walks around with a sack of gold teeth that he’s grave-robbed, amassing his fortune. Another is a born-again drunk who keeps repeating “ford ate hours,” which Stet eventually figures out means “four to eight hours,” how long it’ll take for him to sober up so he can drive home. Stan’s father, whom he just met, was a seventy-seven-year-old artist who spent a week with him, then died in a motorcycle accident. Every page, every paragraph, is filled with these creations, these details. Seven books of stories, every paragraph filled with a new concept, a new character, a new diversion. That’s a shitload of creativity. It would be amazing to watch Singleton work, to look inside his head, watch all these ideas come out, almost like a factory, a conveyor belt, the assembly line of spectacular fiction.

Stet and Stan take a liking to each other. Stet was supposed to talk him into going to the University of Chicago—a pretty good school to give up—but Stan’s actually pretty funny, and Stet thinks he should go for it. An example of a Stan joke: If they added golf to the Special Olympics, would people still ask the players what their handicap is? Stan’s full of these, having to control himself from making a joke whenever he speaks (as many of them, like the golf joke, aren’t exactly PC). This doesn’t go over well with Sally, whom Stan, by the way, thinks is a perfect match for Stet. And that’s where the title comes in, as Stet is just finishing up one bad relationship and isn’t quite ready for the next, wanting to stay between.

I read a few of the stories in Between Wrecks and loved them all. The lead piece, “No Shade Ever,” starts with a similarly simple concept and just goes with it. The protagonist in that story has a vision of making a bunch of functional art—furniture—adorned with classic car cigarette lighters—and that’s it; the story is him trying to do that. The third, “Columbarium,” involves a guy avoiding some crematorium bills by asking the local ceramicist to borrow his kiln. Singleton’s stories don’t cover wars, nor do they focus on single relationships. He’s get an idea, then lets some interesting someone run around inside it. He’s kind of a Southern T.C. Boyle in that way, though some of Boyle’s stories are pretty high-concept, and sometimes, dire. George Singleton is one of my favorite story writers, and Between Wrecks might be his best book.

George Singleton