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The Existential Flea Market 

ollicking stories of Carolina small town life

Imagine, if you will, an R-rated episode of the Andy Griffith Show. Deputy Barney Fife has bribed Cousin Goober to supervise a prison roadwork detail so that Barney can spend Saturday afternoon nearby in a sexual dalliance with his girlfriend Thelma Lou. When several deer cross in front of the work detail, Goober takes advantage of his unaccustomed access to a shotgun and brings down an eight-point buck in the middle of the road. In the ensuing confusion, several prisoners escape, and Goober has to burst in on Barney and Thelma Lou to report the mishap. Ultimately, one of the lost prisoners is pulled from an empty well, using the carcass of the deer.

Although author George Singleton handles this slapstick plot in his story "Deer Gone" with considerably more art, relating it to the familiar TV show gives a flavor of the rollicking, but fundamentally humane, take on his Carolina characters that he offers in his new collection of short stories, The Half-Mammals of Dixie.

Working out of Pickens County, SC, Singleton has amassed a detailed knowledge of the culture of Carolina small town life, which he chronicles in these 15 stories. Though there's a tinge of Southern Gothic in his exotic characterizations, Singleton's people are a far cry from the agrarian tradition of Reconstruction-haunted patricians and hardscrabble crackers. Singleton's rural Southerners have left the farm to splash in the turgid waters of the various forms of commerce that have emerged in the "New South," and the more individual and eccentric the commerce, the more entertaining his stories are.

In one of the cleverest pieces, "How to Collect Fishing Lures," a laid-off textile executive gives a thorough and rather convincing explanation of how to make a living by collecting and selling fishing lures at flea markets. The level of obsession and commitment documented in this story is thoroughly believable and even attractive, and it all hinges on the narrator's refusal to give in to the humiliation of receiving unemployment.

There are several other flea market tales in The Half-Mammals of Dixie, featuring other delightful eccentrics who've opted for a life built around this Southern subculture. There's Madam Tammy, the palm reader, who fondly hopes that her long-lost father will show up at a market someday selling recovered golf balls. There's also Fagin, who sells coonskin caps and uses his catheter and bag to win urine retention bets with college boys at bars. Singleton paints the lives of these folks with a deft touch, telling of their searches for long-lost relatives, their love lives, and their strategies for converting junk into "collectibles" without a hint of condescension. In fact, most of these flea market denizens have deliberately chosen this particular means of making a living because it gives them freedom and autonomy, and their lives become quest tales of considerable charm. Their ethic is well summed up by the guy who deals in used measuring equipment in the story, "What Slide Rules Can't Measure": "On good days we hurt no one's feelings, and we expect the same from mere strangers, onlookers, cops, and scammers."

Singleton's white-collar characters haven't made the positive existential choices of the flea market vendors, and their portraits are far less engaging. Trapped in business meetings, sales motivation seminars, and high school reunions, they nurture festering resentments from their youth, and use booze and bad manners to damage themselves and others in fairly predictable ways.

Author Raymond Carver created the prototype for the mean-spirited, semi-reliable narrator with a drinking problem; here, Singleton's Carver-like narrators are just too honestly Southern, and thus too incorrigibly guilty, to carry off the role. Incapable of true cruelties, they settle for pranks. In the story "Impurities," for instance, the narrator realizes that a guy who calls on him selling water purifiers door to door was the student evangelist at his college who had harangued him constantly in the laundry room over his sinfulness. To gain a little retrospective revenge, what do you suppose the narrator has the former evangelist pour through the device and drink in order to make the sale?

Singleton's resourceful, existential hustlers are presented here as preferable to his crudely venal intellectuals and executives -- but maybe Southerners in general are more at home at a flea market than at an expense account dinner.

CL Recommends

A Season With Verona by Tim Parks. British essayist Parks spent a year traveling with the famed Hellas Verona football club in Italy to examine the phenomenon of that country's soccer mania. The result is a fun and compelling, ground-up view of Italy itself including the world-within-a-world of sports fanatics and the athletes they worship/hate.Who's Who In Hell by Robert Chalmers. A hit first novel in England, now released as a first edition paperback in the US, the story is about a young obit writer who falls for an American knockout. Their relationship, the ins and outs of the newspaper business, the deranged obituaries, and Chalmers' style all create a smart, fun read with a lot of heart without the sentimentality. Heist! The $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft by Jeff Diamant. It's the whole sordid tale of one of the most clueless groups of thieves ever. Observer reporter Diamant does an excellent reporting job, from recounting the theft itself to detailing the subsequent investigation and relating the sometimes hilariously unbelievable behavior of those involved.Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. A wispy, amusing and evanescent story of humans' ever-present state of yearning from Japan's queen of short novels. On the surface, an involving but simple story of two cousins' difficult relationship, Goodbye Tsugumi is also a subtle meditation on the transitoriness of experience, and the intangibility of happiness. The Dead Circus by John Kaye. Los Angeles is once again the backdrop (and de facto character) for a noir novel. This one is a masterfully written tale involving dead rock musicians and a long look into connections with the Manson Family.

--John Grooms, Ken Harmon, John Schacht, Ann Wicker

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