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November 7, 2007

Book Notes - George Singleton ("Work Shirts for Madmen")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

With his new novel, Work Shirts for Madmen, George Singleton has once again proved himself a master storyteller. Last year, his Drowning in Gruel short fiction collection formally introduced me to this wonderful author (though I had enjoyed his short fiction for years in various literary quarterlies and compilations), and in the 17 months since I have squeezed every one of his books into my crowded reading schedule.

George explains the premise of Work Shirts for Madman in his essay, but I can add the book is marvelous satire, both funny and surprisingly touching, and easily one of my favorite novels of the year.

Newsweek said of the book:

"If there is a fiction genre blending the riotous, bleary-eyed excess and absurdity of gonzo journalism with the rather earnest, sensitivity of a John Irving hero—who always does right by his wife in the end—"Workshirts" belongs to it. This is not the literature of drying out, or staying wet, that we know from grand literary drunks like Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski. There is none of the degradation, anger, and despair—none of the pity or revulsion that mark other entries in the well-stocked canon of booze lit. Harp Spillman doesn't have demons; he has madcap consequences."

In his own words, here is George Singleton's Book Notes essay for his novel, Work Shirts for Madmen:

Work Shirts for Madman takes place over the year that once-highly sought after metal sculptor Harp Spillman quits drinking. He’s gotten beyond the bottom—no one calls anymore seeking large commissioned pieces for urban areas—and lowered himself to being a freelance ice sculptor. Then he screws that job up by playing a mean, politically-charged practical joke. His wife Raylou offers support and, over some time before the novel’s action, may have planted some schemes to aid in her husband’s needed recovery.

This, in a way, is an anti-picaresque novel. Instead of Harp Spillman going out and encountering oddballs, rogues, misfits, ne’er-do-wells, et cetera, they seem to find him.


This will probably be a first: I thought that these songs reflected what action took place in the novel, and that they should be played over and over on a loop. Now that I think about it, I think they should be played simultaneously, in the same room, on nine separate CD players.

The Modern Lovers, “Pablo Picasso”

There’s that line “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole—not like you.” Harp Spillman, pretty much.

George Jones, “Bone Dry”

I hate this song with all my heart.

Terry Allen, “The Art Mob’s Out Tonight”

“You better act right ‘cause the Art Mob’s out tonight.” No one acts right in this particular novel, really. Maybe the anteaters next-door to Harp’s house.

Terry Allen, “Truckload of Art”

Why isn’t Terry Allen listened to daily? I wonder. “A truckload of art is burning near the highway” pretty much explains one of the final scenes.

Burning Brides, “Arctic Snow”

I’m not sure where I even got this CD. This song is hard and fast. Great drums that will drown out “Bone Dry.” The lyrics “high enough to make a good impression,” might mean a different thing in the song, but in my mind it’s when Harp Spillman’s dealing with those Republicans.

The Pogues when Shane McGowan’s at his best (or worst, maybe): “Sunny Side of the Street,” “Dirty Old Town,” definitely “If I Should Fall from Grace with God”

Tom Waits, “What’s He Building?”

kind of goes with what Harp’s doing on his own land, what what Arthur Poole’s doing down the slope of Ember Glow

Social Distortion, “Like an Outlaw”

This is kind of a song that Raylou could sing for Harp: “Like an outlaw/I’d lie for you/I’d kick and scream and do time for you/I’d rob and steal…terrorize the town for you…”

Tom Waits, “Get Behind the Mule”

The mule, the mule, the mule. Damn mule. It has nothing to do with Work Shirts for Madmen, unless you consider that the anteater smuggler might be a mule of sorts, and that working a mule is kind of like dealing with a vice, or that having to write a damn novel is kind of like getting up every morning and plowing. Maybe.

George Singleton and Work Shirts for Madmen links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher
the author's Wikipedia entry

Nashville Scene review
Newsweek review

"Seldom Around Here" short fiction at Zoetrope
"Shooting Republicans" short fiction at Backwards City Review
"Unfortunately, The Woman Opened Her Bag and Sighed" short fiction at Esquire

Atlanta magazine profile of the author
Booksense interview with the author
A Good Blog Is Hard to Find interview with the author
the author's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for his short story collection, Drowning in Gruel
publisher interview with the author
Southern Literary Review profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)