Between Wrecks by George Singleton. Dzanc Books, 2014.
George Singleton has done it again. Between Wrecks, his sixth collection of short stories, presents more of the humorous yet deeply human stories that readers have come to expect. The characters are everyday, hard luck people struggling against funny but real obstacles, such as family issues and economic misfortune. The stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but as with Singleton’s best work, there is genuine empathy for their situation. Personal loss deeply resonates throughout these pieces. The collection is solid, and should be read by anyone who interested in contemporary Southern literary fiction.
Singleton has had more impact on me than any other contemporary writer. He is the only author whose entire catalog I own. I have pushed his stories on my peers like a door-to-door evangelist. Singleton’s The Half Mammals of Dixie was the first short collection I read on my own volition, and his subtle blend of humor, sorrow, and humanity has informed my own writing. His work is responsible for steering down on the path to a life and career of writing literary fiction.
Sadly, “George Singleton has done it again” is not entirely extolling. Between Wrecks is good – the stories stand up to his best work in The Half Mammals of Dixie and Drowning in Gruel – but unfortunately they are also more of the same. We have read these stories before. Man has relationship crisis – such Stet Looper’s pregnant wife taking off to raise their child away from him and South Carolina – or an equally destabilizing identity crisis. Long-held obligations are allowed to crumble. This collapse more than not leads to drinking, which somehow leads to meeting a local oddball or similarly distressed woman who then gives the main character a spark of hope. In between there are high jinx and more drinking. Plenty of drinking.
There are some great stories in this collection. “Which Rocks We Choose” has been a favorite since I read it a few years ago in a journal (I believe The Georgia Review, but unfortunately Dzanc books did not include a list of journals where some of these stories previously appeared). “Tongue” is a blueprint in how to take a ridiculous concept and make it into a short story that is legitimately insightful. Singleton steps away from the usual short story with an 8o-page novella entitled “I Would Be Remiss” that delivers a strong closing to the collection through a welcome variation in form.
The issue is that the stories in Between Wrecks have become predictable. I laughed a lot while reading this collection. I felt genuinely connected to some of the characters. But I would pick up the man’s Saturday night tab if he could write one collection where no one goes into a bar.
There is a type of Southern short story that is very trendy now that I refer to as the “drunk fishing story.” It is always written by a man. It always concerns a minimum of two men. The men go fishing or other similar activity and spend most of their time drinking. They lament their failed relationships. They bemoan the contemporary world, yet never seem to be able to define what exactly that is. Over the course of the story they get really drunk. And that’s all they do. Every Southern literary journal publishes art least one of these stories per issue. They’ve become so common that they blend together. Put them in a bag, shake it up, and pull one out. You won’t be missing much.
Unfortunately Between Wrecks falls into the same repetitive trap that has swallowed up a lot of contemporary Southern fiction. The pieces here are good but they only cover ground that Singleton has long walked dry. Singleton can do better. It is not his fault so much as it is the era’s; right now repetition is rewarded with contracts and acceptances. Southern fiction needs a collection like Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories to hit the reset button on what it means to live below the Mason-Dixon in the 21st century. And this is not to just cast stones; I am as guilty of falling back into the last quarter of the 20th century as anyone else.
That is not to say Between Wrecks is not worth reading. It is solid. But it feels the same as it always has, and after a while that is no longer enough.