April 3, 2018
You know when you’re traveling to the beach and the road ahead of you stretches for miles and the exits become less frequent? Then as the wiggly heat waves rise from the pavement, you suddenly notice Burma Shave signs for boiled peanuts, fresh peaches and the last chance for gas. Calloustown by George Singleton, is that exit. You stop because you need to fill-up. You stay because you can’t resist the peaches. You’re caught up – in the place, the people and their stories. Calloustown by George Singleton, published by Dzanc Books, is a short story collection about a small town in the rural South.
Singleton’s Southern storytelling engages within a few sentences of each chapter. The characters’ interactions and conversations appear to begin mid-story, like you’re already involved. The reader is transported to the car’s passenger seat searching for the cheapest gas or a living room sofa dreading the arrival of a rude friend, named Dottie. In all of the stories, there are moments of aside. A story within another tucked so neatly you never knew you left. You travel through one scenario and then back again, like lazy country roads that lead to the only bar in Calloustown.
Calloustown is packed with understatement and irony. Each narrative incorporates a dusty dry sense of humor from a sarcastic male perspective. The point of view remains consistent with the predominant character in each story experiencing some level of discontent either with marriage, alcohol or parental deficiency.
Even though it’s a collection of short stories, I believe Calloustown is two books in one. The first is for the relaxed, casual reader who wants a great story and a good laugh. The stories begin and end with miles of highway between them without ever leaving Calloustown. It’s an enjoyable read for someone who craves a reminiscent journey through a small town with tour guide characters who sometimes lean a little toward blue humor. Like the irony of being allergic to latex and acquiring a wide-sampling of sexually transmitted diseases.
The second book is the one I read. I appreciated the deeper, meaningful stories beyond the ones that had me cackling. All of the stories had an element of surprise, foreshadowing and subtle hints of discomfort. Singleton will incorporate some phrase that on the surface makes little sense or somehow doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the story and then an explanation will reveal itself after you turn a few more pages. There were a couple of times I scared the sleeping dog in my lap because of my outbursts, but more often I found myself mulling over these characters’ lives and uncovering similar roots of people I know. I would set the book down, look to the ceiling and wonder, why is this a bit off? It’s like Green Acres meets the Twilight Zone. The characters and situations are plausible but there was an undercurrent of something else somber. Sadder and lonelier. Singleton artfully uses small details to create discomfort in the reader without casting a flood light on it. Like the two guys discussing the use of a freezer and a hacksaw to clean a deer when the deer hasn’t fully succumbed to its injuries. Or the story about the lady who spends three days with a garden hose determined to fill the underground cavern in her backyard. The uneasiness is unnerving but keeps the pages turning.
The discomfort is short lived, however, as Singleton will nudge your funny bone like a gentle elbow to your side that there is a guy in Calloustown named Ray Charles, who is the town’s photographer. Or he’ll mention a taxidermist who boasts the safest petting zoo ever. You’ll read about how the people of Calloustown were unanimously insulted that Sherman didn’t think enough of their town to burn it as he passed nearby.
Calloustown is off-kilter, skewed just to the left of being in focus. There aren’t any solutions in any of the stories. You have most of the information, but not all of it which leads to a book you cannot put down. None of the stories are neat or finished with a literary bow. They are a snapshot of a possible life of someone similar to who you know. You finish the stories before you’re ready to let them go. You fill up with gas and bring the peaches and boiled peanuts for the car ride home.
George Singleton is the author of two novels, Between Wrecks and Stray Decorum and six short story collections. He received the Hillsdale Award for Fiction and was a 2013 SIBA Book Award Finalist. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and teaches writing at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Link to original review published by Southern Lit Alliance: