restricted access In Starts and Fits
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In Starts and Fits
Between Wrecks
George Singleton
Dzanc Books
271 Pages; Print, $15.95

inline graphicIn Between Wrecks, the sixth short story collection from the South Carolina-based writer George Singleton, both the South itself and those who study it are subjected to a wry, often bleakly satirical gaze. Singleton is equally at home examining bizarre family beliefs and legends (including one involving a talking mule in the 19th century, who offers one character sound business advice) and eyeing the foibles of academics who try just a little too hard to find a topic that can be turned into an area of study. Stet Looper, the narrator of several of these stories, often references his “low-residency master’s degree in Southern culture studies.” If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it’s meant to be—and Stet’s occasionally hapless trek through the South in search of a thesis subject becomes a recurring motif in this collection.

A quarter of the way into the collection, in the story “Bait,” a character named Frankie utters a vulgar nonsense rhyme that baffles the narrator: “‘In starts and fits come farts and shits,’ Frankie said for no reason I could figure.” That “for no reason I could figure” looms large in Between Wrecks—while there are certainly moments in these stories where a seemingly offhand comment or character tic has repercussions down the line, there are also more than a few instances where strange or inexplicable things happen just for the sake of happening.

Several of Singleton’s characters are engaged in borderline-illegal practices, cons, and low-key grifts. Among the most memorable is Uncle Cush, a Vietnam veteran who enlists his young nephew in late-night expeditions to damage barbed wire “in hopes of their calling us up later to help them out with new fencing.” And in the collection’s comic highlight, “Tongue,” a pair of car-rental agency employees attempt to one-up each other with collections of objects left abandoned in returned cars.

One time Mike found a quarter pound of weed left in a scooped-out Gideon’s Bible.

One time I found a signed copy of a novel by that guy William Faulkner, but Mike didn’t believe me and said I’d only found a book and forged a signature. So the next day he found a non-scooped-out Gideon’s Bible and wrote on the first page, “Hope you like my caracters—God.” I told him that God would probably know how to spell.

Singleton evokes a lived-in set of experiences, with narrative digressions that seem entirely natural coming from someone with a little too much time on their hands and an ever-present temptation to game the system of their own employment. It comes to a head in a restaurant, where the co-workers’ friendly rivalry earns a series of odd glances, then shifts into something less expected. Throughout Between Wrecks, bureaucratic foibles and the aftereffects of official carelessness come into play repeatedly; there’s a character in the story “Jayne Mansfield” whose birth certificate, due to a typo, has them born on the impossible date of February 30th, causing him no end of frustration in life: “I got reneged from NASA only because some nurse got all confused back in 1945 because her brother or husband was returning from Iwo Jima or Dunkirk. Ain’t that the something, how things work out?” Problematic home renovations, pathological liars, and manhunts also crop up in various stories: slightly skewed scenes from life, populated by the sorts of people you might find expounding on conspiracies at the local bar. (Where, it should be mentioned, some of these stories are set.)

The reference to “that guy William Faulkner” in “Tongue” is not the only self-conscious literary nod in the collection. Of the names in the book’s dedication, I’m assuming that “Larry” and “Barry” refer to Brown and Hannah, respectively. And the short “Unfortunately, The Woman Opened Her Bag and Sighed” is perhaps the apex of the book’s lit-scene satires, with a dig at anonymous reviews and a reference...