A Southern Philosopher’s Manifesto

A Review of George Singleton’s Asides: Occasional Essays

By Donna M. Crow

Even though George Singleton claims in the very first line of his Preface which he also calls an Apology, “I hate writing essays. It’s not my gig,” this humbly titled collection, Asides: Occasional Essays, may well be Singleton’s manifesto.

Known for his sharp wit, keen observations and satirical critique on southern living, the author’s work to date (ten short story collections, two novels and an instructional book on writing) generally falls into the genre of Grit Lit or Rough South. He is not shy when it comes to illuminating stupidity or debauchery. To borrow an Appalachian phrase to which I am accustomed, Singleton likes to poke fun at his own people, including himself. Through the lens of humor, he unapologetically exposes the underbelly of his southern experience which might include racism, misogyny, and other unadulterated abuses, often using a first-person narrator as the offending party.

Asides, his only collection of nonfiction stories, reads much the same as his fiction.

Whether he’s writing about himself, a neighbor or a ne’er-do-well, what catches Singleton’s eye are the absurdities and he tells it like he sees it…or hears it…or smells it, with an authentic voice and vivid descriptions. We are fully warned what to expect from the get-go as his collection opens with an essay called, “Refuse”, in which the author credits one of his first summer jobs—driving a garbage truck—with influencing his desire to become a writer.

“Something stink,” his co-worker Honeypie says and proceeds to find a two-week-old meatloaf sandwich covered in tin-foil and housed in a “grease-stained brown paper bag” beneath the seat of the garbage truck the budding writer was driving. Honeypie’s questionable need to open the rancid bag only to find “enough maggots squirming between bread and beef for an entire hospital wing of patients with necrotic tissue in need of clean up,” and another co-worker, Esby’s, response, “Summody wasted a good sandwich…Who don’t eat they lunch, who don’t eat they lunch,” paints a vivid image, including sound and smell. Later, in the same essay, when the three men pull into the county dump behind the dogcatcher unloading a pile of stiff ‘throw-away’ dogs, Esby says, “It ain’t right. Gone happen to us one day.” Honeypie responds, “That man ain’t got no soul, do what he do.”  Singleton says he “didn’t think about how Esby and Honeypie might’ve felt their lives were on about the same course as a stray dog’s, but I do now.”

Singleton is the recipient of numerous awards including but not limited to being inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers and awarded the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence. He was also named a Guggenheim fellow but rest assured that’s not all he’s been called. According to an article in The Bitter Southerner by Zachary Vernon (a family friend of Singleton’s) and because his work has appeared in Playboy, he might also be known in more conservative circles as, “that perverted writer”. That same article lovingly makes the accusation that, “he drinks a lot, curses like a sailor, reads Marx, and hates both Republicans and organized religion.” In other words, George Singleton is a convicted thinker, passionate if not a little bitter when there is an injustice that catches his attention. Yet, his work doesn’t take on the essence of passing judgment. His use of the first-person narrator, allows the reader to bear witness, first-hand to the protagonist’s mindset and make their own judgments. George Singleton is a story teller; one with a soft spot for the underdog.

In his essay titled, “I Thank the Church for Teaching Me How to Lie,” the author relates the number of times he’s been confronted by questions such as, ‘Where do you go to church?’ or ‘Have you accepted the Lord as your personal savior?’ These are questions often heard in the South, but the essay digs deeper than that. Funny, yes, but Singleton makes a more poignant statement as he recounts his limited time attending services (about one year). Even though both his parents had grown up in church and his father “knew the Bible front and back,” young George had never been to church until his family moved to South Carolina when he was seven years old.

We went Sunday/Wednesday night, Sunday/Wednesday night, Sunday/Wednesday night. I remember having to go to a Sunday school service and outright crying because I didn’t know who the hell Jesus was—we had coloring books handed out, and all the other kids seemed to know of this mysterious man who wore, what I considered, a dress.”

The author admits not having much memory about the rest of his church experience, “no sermons or hymns” stand out in his mind except this one last experience:

“…It was 1965. The Civil Rights Movement churned in all other parts of the country. On one of these Wednesday nights, the preacher decided to open up the floor to any questions from the congregation…

“‘Any y’all have a question?’ the preacher said in a high-whining voice.

“One man stood up and said, ‘What are we supposed to do if a Black man shows up here?’ Except he didn’t use the term ‘Black man’.

“Another man stood up and yelled out, ‘Ignore him, and hope he don’t come back.’

“I remember lots of laughter in the room. Har har har. Nodding heads, slapped knees.

My father got up, letting out a grunt. He had his crutches pointed askew. I don’t think he said, ‘Come on,’ or ‘That’s enough’ or ‘I’m only getting up because my broken hips hurt real bad.’ …He pulled me up, and I thought I’d done something wrong. My mother stood. We walked out—and we hadn’t sat in the very back of the vestibule or anything, no, we were near the front—and my father’s crutches squeaked. We exited the church at about .25 mph. He had those metal crutches with arm bands—I keep them hanging on the wall where I write now—and they could’ve used a couple big WD-40 squirts if WD-40 became available in South Carolina at the time.

“We left. We skedaddled. My father cussed the entire drive home: “Goddamn son-of-a-bitch racists.”

From his first church experience, high school field trips, summer job as a garbage truck driver, girlfriend breakups and more Singleton gives us a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain. The overarching narrative behind the stories may well answer the question of why George Singleton first obtained a degree in philosophy and went on to become a writer. The book, aptly titled Asides perhaps for the side glances and afterthoughts it inspires, is small with short, easy to read vignettes. It furnishes plenty of laughs yet the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking about how much it reminded me of Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. The essays in Asides enumerate the well-lived experiences necessary to become a writer. Or more importantly, it shows the places in Singleton’s young life, like in Welty’s, where the would-be author learned to listen, to observe body language, to discern a deeper understanding of the world around him.

Welty’s book, organized in three sections titled, “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice” were once lectures given at Harvard University wherein, she told the stories of her childhood as they related to her learning to observe and discern. She intended her work to be a guide for young writers. In the last paragraph of her collection, Welty states, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life,” yet the important message – observation. Perhaps from reading his work, one could surmise that George Singleton’s life was not as sheltered as Welty’s and maybe he did or did not intend his collection to be a writer’s guide to the universe. Nevertheless, he has crafted teaching moments for paying attention to details, listening to language, learning to see events in the world from the outside as well as inside, and finding a unique voice. And some of his essays do give direct advice to writers such as “How to Write Stories, Lose Weight, Clean Up the Environment, and Make $1,000,000,” or “The Daily Grind,” or “Where I Discovered Narrative Possibilities, Possibly.”

And though this Rough South writer may or may not admit it in mixed company, there is a soft-hearted empathy that evokes a tear from time to time as in his essay entitled, “Strange Love in a Small Pasture,” wherein the author captures a visceral scene of authentic rural life.

This tale involves “…a trailer fire, some bartered rabbits, a horse and pig that once lived apart; my good ex-auto mechanic Dean Nash, who lived a half-mile from me in the stone house and came down with MS in his mid-to late-thirties; and a deaf woman.” To summarize, a pot-bellied pig named Blackie lived in a trailer with his owners until the trailer burned. In the chaos of his immediate and unfortunate abandonment, he ran across the road to seek refuge by standing directly beneath a neighbor he had previously only seen from a distance. Candy, a sway backed mare who stood idly in a pasture witnessing the tragedy, welcomed him beneath her haunches. You’ll have to read the rest for yourself. Suffice it to say, the two became kindred spirits. For more than a dozen years, the verbal directions to Singleton’s house went something like this:

Turn off White Horse Road and drive four miles. You’ll cross the Saluda River. You’ll see a life-size plastic bull in the front yard of some people with no landscaping tastes. At the intersection of 183 and Thomas Mill Road, take a right. Take the first left—you’ll see a horse with a pig underneath it–onto Hester Store Road.

Read Asides: Occasional Essays for a good laugh. Read it to learn a little about living in the rural South. Read it as a writer and let it inspire you to find the places in your own life that flipped the light switch for your eyes and ears. If nothing else, read it to learn the best cure for a hangover.

Donna M. Crow

Donna M. Crow lives and writes on the banks of the Kentucky River on a farm that has been in her family for three generations. After fleeing childhood at eighteen with the lofty goal of making a life different from her parents, she has come full circle and now happily walks the same trails, sees their reflections in the same mudpuddles. She has won awards for nonfiction, fiction and poetry, though she is most comfortable writing memoir and essays. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, Kudzu, Now and Then, Literary Leo, The Minnetonka Review, The Louisville Review, Blue Lyra Review, Appalachian Review and others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University.