Fish 'n chimps: Forty-Five's hapless fools

I’m trying to decide what I like best about George Singleton’s new collection of short stories. It might be the title, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, or it might be the jacket cover– a portrait of a creature that is, indeed, half-mammal (a mer-monkey, to be specific) bearing a nest with two large eggs in one hand and flourishing a Latin inscription in the other (“Happy is the man who knows the cause of things”). The back flap is equally appealing, showing a garrulous-looking author standing in a port-a-sauna, with only his head and cigarette protruding.
But these are just the superficial charms. I’m also quite taken with the content-– with Singleton’s frequent use of double contractions (“you’d’ve thought”), the laser accuracy of his metaphors, the preponderance of stories in which a kid and his dad are left by a mom in search of a singing career, and the fact that there are an average of two and a half punch lines per story that I don’t get. I like the feeling that a story is happening in real time, so you can’t back up to analyze the humor.
Singleton lives in Dacusville, South Carolina, which may or may not be about the size of Forty-Five, South Carolina, the fictional town where much of the action in The Half-Mammals of Dixie takes place, and whose name, if it doesn’t derive from an actual population, would certainly be representative of the smallness of the place.
In one story, downtown Forty-Five is referred to as a place to get a “pound of fatback or advice from any one of its residents on how to hot-wire a car, poison a dog, or make a poultice to cure black lung.” In another, it’s “an entire town of adults who still have first names ending in –y, -I, or –ie.”
Singleton’s work, and many of the stories in The Half Mammals of Dixie, have appeared before in literary journals and in the magazines Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Book. But these are stories that belong together, and they should be read in large doses.
Singleton’s characters are all manifestations of the same hapless fool who wears his dunce cap as a badge of honor, and then flaunts his jester clothes to the envy of us all. From all appearances, they are the oddballs of life. They are absurd, unexpected and surreal, differing from the strange creature on the cover only because they are so deeply human.

George Singleton will read from The Half-Mammals of Dixie (and I sure hope he picks “How to Collect Fishing Lures”) on October 2 at 5:30 pm at New Dominion Book Shop. 404 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall.

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