George Singleton’s Between Wrecks, released earlier this year by Dzanc Books, is a hilarious meditation on idling lives that are held together by reoccurring characters, the South, broken marriages, and plenty of booze.
In “No Shade Ever,” the first story in the collection, we’re introduced to Stet Looper—a reoccurring narrator and student in a low-residency Southern culture studies master’s program—who’s “been spraying gravel directly or metaphorically since birth . . . like [he] took off out of one trouble spot only to arrive at another.” Stet is led to a junkyard by the kind of dream “a person could[n’t] forget or disobey.” He gets drunk with Doc, the owner, abandons his dream, and in a moment of clairvoyance, knows he will “make some more promises . . . [he] would never keep, and from which [he’d] never be able to escape.” The characters of Between Wrecks mirror Stet’s predicament: they’re idling, awaiting the next event that will produce more turmoil in their lives. They may be in limbo but they’re quite certain that whatever happens next won’t be good.
Saint Arthur Weddle, or Start, narrator of “Operation” and “The Sinkholes of Duvall County,” has a similar penchant for prescience: “I looked way into the future and thought about how we would measure our lives between such wrecks, and that there would never be a time when we could feel safe or content about the next one looming.” Scratch-off lottery winner Mal Mardis of “Traditional Development” knows that “winning money” isn’t “necessarily good fortune, at least not for people like him.” Over and over again Singleton returns to mishap; no matter how some play their cards, they just can’t seem to get a break.
Between Wrecks is fourteen stories and two hundred seventy-one pages of well educated, southern men stuck between one bad spot and the next. These aren’t your usual sadsack, despair-wallowing men, though. They tell their stories and often react to them with cold, objective, indifference. We could call them stories or ethnographic sketches similar to Stet’s various failed thesis projects. Singleton, like Stet, wants to show us that the South isn’t as fucked up as it’s made out to be. It’s full of hard-luck lives just like everywhere else; some people just resign themselves to the fact that life is nothing more than an uncontrollable chain of reactions.
Despite all of the weightiness, Between Wrecks is a funny, often hilarious, book. Singleton knows how to employ humor without devolving into caricature, which, like all good satire, allows us to contemplate the reality of an unjust world. The humor comes to a raucous conclusion in the final story/novella “I Would Be Remiss”: the eighty-pages of acknowledgements that round out Stet Looper’s soon-to-be published biography No Cover Available: The Story of Columbus Choice, African-American Sushi Chef from Tennessee. The format challenges notions of story but a story is told as Stet thanks all the folks who helped him along the way—some of them famous, many of them dead, others unknown. The story of how Stet comes to write his biography unfurls like a Rube Goldberg machine, where something as innocuous as staring at a long-snapper’s ass—Stet was briefly a punter in college—can lead someone down the path of biographer.
Between Wrecks will no doubt make you laugh out loud, but it’s not all fun and games. Singleton seriously asks us to question the notion of luck and to take a closer look at how we arrive at certain moments in our lives. Do we really have control, and if not, what can we really do about it?
Review of Between Wrecks: Stories by George Singleton
Published by Open Road Integrated Media