Love-hate humor cries in “Calloustown,” comes to Asheville
by Rob Neufeld
When Duster, one of the narrators in George Singleton’s new story collection, “Calloustown” (Dzanc Books), gets a call from his dad worrying about odd ailments, he goes home to a kind of lunacy that can only exist in a desperately poor Southern town.
“I need to go see a doctor,” Duster’s dad says. “I’m afraid with the way things are going, I might live forever.”
When Duster manages to get his dad to a clinic, Dad ducks out a back door—with the help of a receptionist whom Duster had once ditched.
Duster then wonders, “Would (his father) hitchhike back home because he figured I would never think of him doing so, or toward Sumter, or to the opposite of Calloustown—which happened, in my mind, to be Asheville.”
Singleton will be in Asheville, Wednesday, to present his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m.; and he’ll be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, 3 p.m., Saturday.
A ruse by any other name
By the way, Duster’s dad’s name is Sinclair, which people have shortened to “Sin.” Sin asks Duster if people have nicknamed him “Dust.” “Sin and Dust, father and son,” emblematic perhaps of Calloustown.
Singleton takes special pleasure in representing people’s perverse oddness by how they anoint offspring.
The narrator of “When It’s Q&A Time,” the first story, is Reed—a normal name, it seems, until you learn that his brother, Ed, had died before he was born, and “Reed” stand for “Re-Ed.”
In the second story, the narrator’s father had considered naming him “Henry,” but didn’t like the nickname, “Hank.” “He wanted to name me ‘Tank,’” the narrator says, “my mother said no, and he somehow convinced her that he had an old uncle named Tenry.”
The director of the Calloustown Community Center—located in the abandoned bus depot—is named Berta Parks, which makes the narrator of “Is There Anything Wrong with Happier Times?’ think of Bert Parks and wonder about Berta’s blighted childhood.
It’s not just the names of people that carry the marks of Cain; businesses do too.
The wife of Ray Charles (a white photographer in the third story) works at a picture framing shop called “Hang Me Here.” The narrator of “Invasion of Grenada” (Calloustown is the only place that stages a reenactment of that event) owns a driving range (on an otherwise useless slab of dirt) that he has named Calloustown Practice Range.
The idea came from Bonita, the narrator second wife’s. “People could always say, ‘I need me some CPR,’” she’d advised, “and then when everyone’s sitting around, you know, Worm’s Bar and Grill, wondering who’s going to give mouth-to-mouth, the first guy can say, ‘No, not that kind of CPR—I need to hit me some dimpled balls.’”
You get the idea? I’m not sure you do—because it took me a while to figure out what Singleton is getting at.
He’s not just trying to be funny. He’s not writing stories that go anywhere. And he’s not creating a variety of protagonists. Of the 15 stories, 12 feature first-person narrators, who are pretty much the same person, but with different names and occupations.
What Singleton is after is a portrait of a people he both loves and reviles; of an impoverished, crafty, ghost town-populating bunch of folk he both ridicules and defends.
Even his naming practice cuts multiple ways.
In the last story, “What Could’ve Been,” we’re instructed by an unnamed narrator to take a drive through Calloustown, passing a few look-alike subdivisions. One has roads named for British monarchy; another, for famous golf courses; and a third for Ivy League colleges.
Yeah, please give us names that aren’t so pretentious—like that of the Calloustown sports team, the Calloustown High Ostriches.
Now, the pathos
When June, the wife in the first story, puts down the narrator for coming from an f’d-up place, you can kind of see her point. Reed, as a child, had helped his friend’s father, a contracted road repairer, dig potholes so he’d have work.
But June is a snob. She mocks Reed for his philanthropic work with Shod America, helping “barefoot people.” She locks her car door when she sees a black person; and laughs at a derogatory joke about Mexicans.
June may be shocked by pothole mentality, but Reed thinks “about those sadly doomed people born with holes in their hearts, on edge,” Reed imagines, “from impending merciless misfortunes.”
Calloustown’s finest—old men gathering at the old depot—spend their time trying to fix the local economy. They think that setting Guinness World Records might be the thing.
“Me and Lloyd one time played dominoes for sixty-seven hours straight,” Munny Munson says.
“I can lace a pair of logging boots in fourteen seconds,” says another.
“I ate four whole barbecued armadillos in twelve minutes,” says a third.
The biggest town enterprise is the “What Does Sherman Know” festival, inspired by the locals’ indignation that General Sherman had burned Columbia, S.C. on Feb. 17, 1865, but had considered Calloustown not worth his effort when he’d passed through on Feb. 15.
The protagonists in the Calloustown stories are often apart from or above the general population, either because they’d come from another town nearby or because their parents were highly educated.
This sets up Finley Kay, the narrator of “Muddling,” to be outsmarted by Ruben Orr, a man he fears is a violent redneck.
Ruben, a junk seller, follows Finley home after Finley rejects his roadside offerings. When Ruben, seeing Finley’s house, says, “Damn, son, you look like you done good for yourself,” Finely replies, “In a previous life (I) used to have a rich wife and a regular job.”
Ruben says, “Same story as me, except for the rich wife and regular job.”
As it turns out, Ruben’s menacing behavior is neither random nor money-related. He has a connection to something in Finley’s past that causes Finley to say, “What a bad person I ended up.”
You hear a similar note at the end of the last story, when the driving tour ends up at the site of the former drive-in movie theater. The narrator puts you in his shoes, taking sexual advantage of interchangeable girls in cars.
“Go ahead,” our tour guide says, reflecting on escape from Calloustown, “Say, ‘Jesus Christ, all that bad living. What could’ve been? What could’ve been? What could’ve been?”