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May 30, 2006

Book Notes - George Singleton ("Drowning in Gruel")

Gruel, South Carolina is a small southern town that time, progress, and prosperity have passed by. Author George Singleton has populated his fictional town with a unique selection of characters. These stories offer bittersweet humor, and Singleton has staked out his claim as a master of short fiction in this volume.

Thanks to Jeff (a southerner again, himself) at the litblog The Syntax of Things for pointing out this collection and putting me in touch with the author. Friends like Jeff are indispensable for my ever-growing reading list.

In his own words, here is George Singleton's Book Notes contribution for his collection of stories, Drowning in Gruel:

I wrote thirteen of these stories while still inebriated, and six sober. I won’t say which is which, for I don’t want some do-gooder coming up to me later and saying, “The sober ones were so much better.” Likewise I don’t want someone to tell me I should still drink a fifth of bourbon daily.

I normally listen to music loud-loud-loud when I write. And I tend to listen to the same CDs over and over if I like them. The list below mirrors pretty much what I listened during the two years it took to write these things, with Novel the novel shoved in between those two years.

“Step Right Up” Tom Waits
The story’s about a dog with a freakish litter of puppies. The song’s about a freakish barker with a litter of everything.

Migration Over Gruel
“Reach for the Sky,” Social Distortion
The story’s about a fake hawk migration in the town of Gruel. The song’s about learning about one’s vincibility—which these two men do in the story.

Christmas in Gruel
“Get Behind the Mule,” Tom Waits
In the story, the narrator Godfrey is out there just trying to make ends meet, chopping down Leyland cypresses from rich people’s land, then selling them on the roadside. To get behind the mule, figuratively, is to start work early and keep it up.

Soldiers in Gruel
“The Art Mob’s Out Tonight,” Terry Allen
What else for an art car festival and competition?

“Don’t Take Me for Granted,” Social Distortion
In the story the boy sees his father in a new light—as a crazed and obsessed inventor of sorts, and as a womanizer of sorts. The song’s way better, believe me.

The Novels of Raymond Carver
“What’s He Building?” Tom Waits
The story concerns a guy who gets caught trying to dump his mother’s ashes over his father’s coffin. The creepy song’s about everyone who lives near me in Dacusville, South Carolina

“Winner and Losers,” Social Distortion
The story’s about an ex-gambler. The song’s about gamblers of the heart, as I hear it.

The Opposite of Zero
“If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” The Pogues
In the story, little Gary Noyes has an acerbic, agnostic teacher who prods him in any direction out of life in Gruel, South Carolina. The song’s a beauty, about a reckless man filled with life.

Polish, and Snipers
“Po Black Maddie,” and “Skinny Woman” by The North Mississippi All-Stars
The two stories are short-shorts, and trying to show love the best way the characters know how. The two songs by The North Mississippi All-Stars weave in and out perfectly with each other.

“The Sunnyside of the Street,” The Pogues
In the story, a man wanders up to the narrator’s front porch. He says he has a dog whose saliva can cure wounds. I can’t quite make out what the hell genius Shane Mcgowan’s singing, but I envision a man with a lick-worthy dog, among other things.

Scotch and Dr. Pepper
“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” John Lee Hooker
The story’s about what happened to Novel Akers after he unceremoniously left Gruel, SC in Novel. He’s sobered quite a bit. And he’s not happy. The song’s a middle finger toward everyone and everything when nothing makes sense.

Shirts Against Skins
“Seven Nation Army,” The White Stripes
The story’s about a church league basketball team composed of freaks—boys with three nipples, acne, prematurely hirsute backs, opened sores—who choose to play shirtless so their opponents won’t guard them. Here’s the crux of the great song: “Leave it alone.”

Soles in Gruel
“I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,” The Clash
It’s not that I’m not gung-ho patriotic, but the story starts off with a bunch of hammerhead state legislators showing off their relentless xenophobia. The song’s a classic, and should also be listened to while reading Schopenhauer.

“Where Are You Tonight, Sweet Marie?” Jason and the Scorchers’ version
A man wakes up to find his longlost high school love in the recovery room next to him. Maybe her daddy had six white horses, like in the song, I don’t know.

Slow Drink
“Stupid Girl,” Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Man, this song doesn’t get played very often on the radio, does it? The narrator’s blind date’s an idiot. Her friends are a half-bubble off center. In the song, the lyrics “…looking for the wave you missed/while another one is close at hand,” fits perfectly.

What Attracts Us to Gruel
“Dear Lover,” Social Distortion
Man meets woman at the BBQ-Pig Petting Zoo parking lot where children of divorce get swapped. Man falls in love with her while awaiting his ex-wife. Man, in the end, realizes his life’s messed up. Song’s about the same, minus the BBQ-Pig Petting Zoo, the children, et cetera.

What If We Leave?
Oh those two boys painting nipples and pubic hair on a blind woman’s one-piece bathing suit. Kind of reminds me of why a man might want to take off for Jackson. So “Jackson,” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

John Cheever, Rest in Peace
“House Where Nobody Lives,” Tom Waits
Poor guy has a heart attack the day after his wedding anniversary, aboard a riding lawn mower, and proceeds to clip the county, yard by yard, slumped over. Sad story, kind of. Really, really sad song.

All right. That’s it from here. Next time I’ll write a shorter collection.

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)