220pp. | $15.95
A carpenter in one of George Singleton’s recent stories thinks, “There’s fabric missing from this relationship. There’s wood, but hardly any fabric” (139). Such is the population of fractured relationships, alcohol abuse, gross irresponsibility, deferred dreams, and misplaced identity that lives in Stray Decorum, the new short story collection from Singleton. Unlike his previous efforts, which have focused on the South Carolina towns of Forty-Five and Gruel, these stories are set along the western North Carolina-South Carolina border, with the action centered on the Palmetto side of the line. These eleven stories are connected ostensibly by the presence of dogs – whether the animal is a central part of the story (“What Are the Odds?”) or just an unearthed corpse (“The First to Look Away”). However, there is far more to Stray Decorum than canine musings and good laughs. Like Singleton’s best work, these stories concern characters who have lost their sense of place in a region where change outpaces personal identity. These people find themselves in awkward and confusing situations of their own making, further trapped by their efforts to escape.
Broken and decaying relationships abound in Stray Decorum. In “Vaccination,” a newly divorced man in a veterinarian’s waiting room meets a deranged woman who believes the government has implanted her with microchips. He contemplates a relationship with her until she takes his dog, allowing him to see that his relationship with his pet is far more substantial than those he had with the people who abandoned him. A similar discovery occurs in “A Man with My Number,” when a traveling house number salesman swindles a nursery owner with similar professional ethics. The nursery owner realizes that his life has been a failure of his own creation.
In “Durkheim Looking Down” two people on a double date discover how disconnected they each are from their partners. They see a motivational speaker who encourages his audience to pelt the stage with whatever fruits, vegetables, or refuse they may bring. He reasons that “everyday people – that is, people with only college educations, or doctorates from state-supported universities – needed to hate someone, needed to release their hostilities…” (132). One pair of spouses uses their hate of Core to cover their own fractured relationships, while the others cannot look away from the crumbling world around them. “What Are the Odds?” focuses on a couple caught in an indifferent marriage. Their dog escapes home while they are trying to find personal and financial renewal in Las Vegas. The dog is the only thing connecting two lives that for too long relied on chance.
“The First to Look Away” marks the collection debut of Stet Looper, a recurring character that Singleton has created since his last round of short stories, Drowning in Gruel (2006). Here Looper appears as a child whose rock-quarrying father hatches a scheme to use his son’s elementary school class to dig a moat around the house. The story contains Singleton’s typical commentary on education administration when describing the Maoist-obsessed and dementia-bound principal: “…she trained to play the viola but failed as a musician; then subsequently received advanced degrees in education but failed as a teacher; then became an administrator. Later on in life I recognized this continuum often, especially after three undergraduate degrees and part of a low-residency master’s in Southern Culture Studies” (56). Stet’s teacher, an Ethiopian immigrant “rescued” by her adopted Baptist missionary parents, could be a source of cheap laughs in the hands of a lesser writer. However, she is a stabilizing force for Stet, whose father’s moat is driven by the fear of rabid animals, and whose mother is disinterested in life on a rock quarry. The teacher helps Stet find value in even his dysfunctional home, offering “a special prayer for my fearful family, one that always worked, no matter which continent.” (62) Looper appears again as an adult in “Where Strangers Claim the Tarnished.” He is still pursuing his low-residency MA in Southern Culture Studies and his research takes him to a roadside bar that serves a dying textile community. The people here confirm what Stet knows about the South in which he lives: “Me, I had learned growing up that southerners will tell a stranger’s stranger just about anything, if they feel smarter about a subject – from growing crops to textile league baseball stats, literature to homeopathy – that it’ll make them feel bigger, and more important.” (99).
The characters in Stray Decorum may be confused and wayward, but most do find a glint of hope in the dire circumstances of their own making. They are not entirely losers. They may have made poor decisions regarding their jobs or personal relationships. They may be seeking a path to an easier if not more meaningful life. However, they all find some element of hope, even if it is in the dark realization that their lives are not as screwed up as the person next to them at the bar. Sometimes looking one stool over is all you need.
W. Scott Thomason is a native of Winston-Salem, NC. He is a graduate of UNC-Greensboro and holds an MFA from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. He has fiction forthcoming in The Lindenwood Review and The Sierra Nevada Review. He teaches at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.