George Singleton is the author of over a hundred published short stories, including the classic collections These People Are Us (2002) and Half-Mammals of Dixie (2003), and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Georgia Review, etc. If you are even mildly familiar with his work, there will be some elements of his recent collection, Stray Decorum (2013), that you will find familiar, but language is not one of them. For a writer of Singleton’s imagination, language flows in a constant surprising series of newly discovered freshwater rivers, tributaries, and springs. Indeed, the author is not so much a master artisan as a jack-of-all-trades working as quickly as possible to build enough tubs, barrels, buckets and dams to contain the deluge of his fertile brain. If the language in Singleton’s stories is of endless surprise, his subject matter and themes may be less so.
Stray Decorum, as the title hints, is a dog book, or at least it starts out that way. Dogs are a familiar trope in Singleton’s fiction, and even if one may be mildly annoyed at reading a dog book in the same way some of us are vexed by doggy calendars and doggy commercials on television, one also cannot help but be impressed by the variety of ways Singleton employs his canine creations, the way he beckons them onto the page and sends them skittering back out the door with the deft toss of a ball or stick. My favorite example of this is in “The First to Look Away,” in which dogs enter the story in makeshift coffins, interred by another one of Singleton’s favorite kinds of characters—mad, ludicrous, embarrassing fathers. In this case, a father who invites his son’s elementary school class to come help dig a moat/diamond mine around the family home has totally forgotten about the pets buried there some years ago. The dogs arrive like hundred dollar bills lost in a coat pocket or overlooked Christmas presents squirreled away in the secret nooks and crannies of a crumbling house.
Singleton’s fiction is filled with such buried treasures. This is certainly true of the first story of the collection, “Vaccination,” in which the narrator, who claims to have the occupation of basket weaver, is reluctant to take his pet, “Tapeworm Johnson,” to the vet, because he is suspicious “that an older dog can overdose on all these vaccinations.” He believes that as long as pets stay “away from rabid foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats, and people whose eyes rotate crazy in their eyes sockets, then the chances of your dog foaming at the mouth diminishes drastically.” Of course, the trick to keeping one’s pet safe and healthy is admitting that one never knows when a rabid fox or raccoon will suddenly insert itself into your dog’s life—this is equally true of crazy people. One never knows when one may actually become attracted to a real live crazy person, just in the way dogs seek out all manner of unpredictable and nonsensical varmints to chase. Enter dog Loretta’s owner Holly, an attractive, anachronistic hippy-chick whose appearance and language prompt the narrator to make a “mental note to open the dictionary to the ‘non’ section…so maybe I’d finally learn the correct spelling of ‘non sequitur.’” Holly leads the narrator to one of Singleton’s favorite settings, a bar, which allows him to create a sundry cast of eccentrics, barflies, and good-old-boys that enable the author to showcase his prodigious talent for dialogue—quips, puns, turns of phrase, and witticisms of all kinds which waft through the beery air, fiery with the accelerant of alcohol.
Barrooms also play an important role in the stories “How Are We Going to Lose This One?” and “Where Strangers Claim the Tarnished.” In the former story, Alex, a young advertising executive with an M.A. in Public Relations, enters a local mill town pub, Doffers Paradise Lounge, with the express...