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Dry Humor 

A sober Singleton's new short fiction collection proves he's still got it

I first met George Singleton during Hurricane Ivan's blow through Atlanta, in September 2004. To keep my feet along the sidewalk, I'd had to clutch at the wall of the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, where Singleton was scheduled to give a reading. Inside, the metal roof was booming. Singleton blew in an hour or so late, a glass of whiskey already in his hand. It wasn't his first. He'd needed a little courage to keep on through the storm on his drive down from his home in South Carolina. He complained about the one dry county he'd had to pass through in north Georgia. We were soon all laughing fit to drown out the wind. Almost. Afterward, we went to a bar where he drank a little more. (I admit this was partly my fault.) After seeing him half-asleep in a booth, I drove him back to his hotel.

I know that makes him sound like a cliché of a Southern writer, but he's anything but. Singleton, whose new short fiction collection is Drowning in Gruel, is a liberal bordering on anarchist who directs much of his withering wit against the cons, neocons and other dastardly dunces of the world, most particularly those of rural South Carolina. [Disclosure: One of the stories in this new collection first appeared in a literary quarterly of which I am an unpaid assistant editor.] He likes to stir up the fear of half-brown babies in a racist's heart. He's an agnostic maybe atheist who delights in playing practical jokes on proselytizers. He's a man who will make you believe that, even in rural South Carolina, you might find yourself a couple smart sui generis arty avant-garde tricksters whose "hold my beer" pranks would be worth the night you'd all spend in the slammer.

An oddity himself, his stories show a fascination with more visible mutations: third and fourth nipples, birthmarks, webbed feet, albinos. And as thick a wall of wit as he may put up around it, Singleton writes with a quiet love for the outsider in an insular society.

The next time I saw Singleton, he'd gone dry. I was glad for this, but I also wondered whether a sober Singleton would become a too serious writer. I started waiting for him to stop being funny. I'm still waiting.

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