In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight. With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage. —Jason DeYoung
“Your good, heroic characters are mixed-breed, lovable, loyal mutts adopted from The Humane Society. Your antagonists are AKC-registered purebreds with all the quirks, limitations, and personality flaws inherent to such inbreeding.” Such is George Singleton’s aphoristic writing advice. Such are Singleton’s sympathies for strays.
What’s a stray? A domestic animal wandering at large or lost, right? In George Singleton’s new sly collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, strays take human form—from a paranoid gambler to a kinky sociologist, from a braless hippie to a down-on-his-luck basket weaver and other manner of humans in between—especially those we love and fight. With his fathers and wives, inventors and barflies, Singleton reminds us over and over that not just the lesser animals can be strays, but we too can be just as shiftless and discarded as the wooly mutt digging in the garbage. And what of the actual dogs in this collection? They are all strays, beasts without pedigree, sired by men without direction, raised by women of grit.
George Singleton has published a total of eight books—two novels, five collections of stories, and one book of writing advice. While his novels make for outstanding reading and his book on writing is one of the funniest how-tos I’ve read, it’s Singleton’s short fiction that always leaves a mark on me. Most of the stories in Stray Decorum were originally published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Oxford American, and Ninth Letter. Stray Decorum is the first half of a longer series of short stories, and Dzanc Press plans to publish the second half in 2014 in a book titled No Cover Available.
Although born in Anaheim, California, George Singleton was raised in Greenwood, South Carolina, and he is a Southern writer who understands his rural characters well: “For the record, I would rather be in a bar with a possible gun toter on the loose than with a drifter book critic.” And his fiction brings to mind the work of Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin, and William Gay.
Singleton graduated from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, with a degree in philosophy and attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for his MFA. He currently teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities. In 2009, he was a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 2011 he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers. (By the way, you can go here to hear Singleton tell his Rube-Goldberg-like beginnings as a writer.)
Stray Decorum leads off with a story called “Vaccination.” Here are the opening few sentences:
My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention. It had been two years since she received annual shots. I read somewhere that an older dog can overdose on all these vaccinations, and I have found—I share this information with every dog owner I meet—that if you keep your pet away from rabid foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats, and people whose eyes rotate crazy in their sockets, then the chances of your dog foaming at the mouth diminish drastically. I also believe that dogs don’t need microchips embedded beneath their shoulder blades…
Wry, opinionated, suspicious first person narrators dominate this collection (though there are a few stories in the third person). Within these stories the reader is secluded with a narrator who is convinced of certain concepts or views that are askew from those around him. Most of the time, their world-view derives from isolation, as in “Vaccination,” the narrator’s only companion is his dog, Tapeworm Johnson. Of course, the madcap conflict of the story comes from him meeting another isolated, off-kilter person: “What should a divorced basket weaver do when tempted by a microchip-believing hippie woman intent on drinking before noon?”
With his narrative sensibilities grounded in Samuel Becket and the Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, many of George Singleton’s stories are predicated on absurd themes and he locates his narrative pathos beneath the humor in human misery. In “Durkheim Looking Down,” a pair of couples try to hide their proclivities and eccentricities from each other, only to have their deepest fears revealed during one drunken night—spoiler, the couple that wear the no-bark collars to bed turn out to be the normal ones. Absurdity takes fuller shape in “The First to Look Away,” when a father conscripts his son’s fifth grade class to dig a moat around the family’s log cabin. He tells his son’s teacher that the children are there to “dry mine” for rubies. The Mao-quoting school principal cheers the children from the moat’s edge: “‘To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses.’” Digging disinters several of the father’s childhood dogs, and as the father grieves afresh for his losses, his son sees his father’s humanity for the first time.
Excess absurdity gets toned back in some of these stories, and we see Singleton’s talent and sensitivity for writing finely textured works about human misfortune and spirit. In “What Are The Odds?,” the narrator goes out searching for his missing dog sitter who has stolen his social security card and driver’s license. Unemployed, addicted to playing the lottery, unhappily married the narrator wonders, “What are the odds of someone wanting to steal my life?” And in “Perfect Attendance,” the best story in the collection, a boy who has never missed a day of school his whole life takes a second look at his loser father and the podunk community he grew up in and realizes that perhaps they are not as bad as his mother would have him believe, that always doing “right” and getting your pats on the head aren’t what living is about.
For all of its deadpan humor, non-sequiturs, and oddities, Stray Decorum is overall a collection about feeling that often-overwhelming desire to be accepted and understood. And the final story in the collection, “Humans Being,” may contain the best paragraph in the whole book that clearly defines the stray’s vision:
I could see, for once, in the future, where I’d drive around in my truck with this great dog who would be loyal and trusting. We’d cruise around the entire country, erasing what young men and women thought necessary to exclaim, or about their territory, or unrequited love. I would tell Tennessee to stay on the bench seat, and she would. We’d go through drive-through windows and I’d buy her hamburgers without onions or condiments, plain hot dogs, the occasional stand of French fires. I envisioned our taking a vacation together and driving to the coast where she could chase gulls and dig for whatever mollusks relished living underground.
Here, we get the humor and compassion that defines Singleton’s fiction. In this story the narrator’s wife has left him, and he’s living in a house full of his ex-brother-in-law’s stuff. He is without. Not shelter, per se, but loyal companionship. In the story, a woman comes to his house under the pretenses of looking for her runaway dog, but she is really there to get something that belongs to her from the boxes filling the narrator’s home. The dog returns, but it’s clear that she has no strong love for this animal. The narrator sees something of himself in this dog who has the “eyes of a good nun, of a grieving Appalachian widow, of a disappointed vintner.” He trades the woman her gold panning equipment for this downtrodden pooch. It’s a symbolic trade—wealth for loyalty. He fantasizes early in the story something like this could happen between him and the woman, but as she reminds him in a sentence that takes on double meaning—“It’s you and me against the Humans.” And that is what binds these stories together: the restless need we feel for wanting to be found. The wisdom of this collection is that we can find a home amongst the strays.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.