|While it often seems true that every town in America has become depressingly alike, fully franchised and chain-stored to death, short story writer George Singleton offers a compelling rebuttal in his second collection, The Half-Mammals of Dixie. Almost all 15 of its stories are set in or around a fictional South Carolina town called Forty Five, and Singleton's eccentric characters--flea-market hustlers, a fish aquarium salesman, a bogus "primitive" artist--are hard to imagine outside the narrow civic boundaries of his singular imagination.|
A writing teacher and ashtray-collecting, flea-market hound himself, Singleton builds most of his stories around first-person narrators, evoking such writers as Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah, and Raymond Carver, but infusing each tale with his own brand of sly humor and outsider skepticism. Singleton is particularly good at capturing the rhythms and peculiarities of southern speech, as in this passage from "When Children Count": "You sound exactly like my dead sister," this woman said, pushing her full cart into Tammy's backside. "I ain't never heard nothing like that. Say this: 'I will never, ever order a club sandwich here, what with the ptomaine.' Say it. Say."
While most of the stories are funny--"Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award" is an absolute marvel of conception and execution--a few of the tales that hit hardest are much darker. Especially haunting is "Bank of America," which centers around four childhood friends who still gather annually as adults in a swamp-land tree house, from which they fish for turtles and are forced, one fateful year, to confront the consequences of past misdeeds. Despite the story's title, which refers to a character who works at a national chain of banks, Singleton tells the story in a voice that's as unique as the flawed, but mostly likable, characters who populate his hometown. --Keith Moerer