November Read of the Month: “The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs: Stories” by George Singleton

There are unwritten rules one must at least consider when attempting to mention an author’s place among the masters of the Southern literary canon. One of those is to include no less than two quotes from William Faulkner. So, let us begin.

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” – William Faulkner (probably)

George Singleton is a remarkably unique commentator and gifted observer of American culture in general and the weirdness of the Southern ethos in particular. Over the course of his career, he has published eight collections of short stories, two novels, and a book on writing. Over two hundred of his stories have been published in magazines and journals, yet he still seems to be as prolific as ever. One might ask, how does he keep coming up with his seeming endless list of eccentric oddball characters, hilariously uncomfortable scenes, and countless morality tales in which the moral is often overshadowed by subtle and underlying truths?

It probably helps that Singleton lives in Upstate South Carolina. However, one also might look to the Faulkner quote above. Singleton’s powers of observation and imagination are savant-like talents that most writers would kill for. And not unlike other true masters of Grit Lit who refuse to simply point and laugh at sordid immorality, he is not afraid of wallowing in it (often mentally, sometimes physically) to dig around and find unexpected beauty and grace or, frequently, the lack thereof. Instead of sitting safely atop a Faulknerian perch waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting morsels of insight, he walks proudly among us insisting that we justify our loves, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and hypocrisies.

In his latest collection of stories, The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs, Singleton explores the conflicted lives of those who strive to make a difference in a land that shuns difference. Most of his stories are written in the first person, giving the reader a sense of immersion. As if the narrator is telling you, the reader, and you alone their story. Quite often the main characters are undergoing some type of existential crisis and engage in classical absurdism to help find meaning in their lives. These stories were written mostly during the pandemic and chaotic years of political and social upheaval—a frightfully productive time for existentialists and absurdists. So, if you are wondering whether or not Singleton has something to say, you just haven’t met the man.

Like Singleton, most of the loosely-linked stories in this collection live and breathe in the South Carolina Piedmont, an area known for its staunch blue-collar support for God and patriotism as well as the deep red color of its tortured soil and political leanings. They are set in old mill town settlements left to either fester or succumb to gentrification, college town suburbs, bait and tackle shops turned beer joints, and rural outposts either real or invented, giving the stories an authentic sense of place. But it is the chorus of berserk characters who take center stage.

In “What a Dime Costs,” Cock Walker, a teen-ager who is too smart for his own good (a common attribute of many of Singleton’s protagonists), learns a hard lesson from his father, who spends an entire day driving backroads collecting a truck full of box turtles. He tells Cock that if a box turtle is moved away from its home, it will quite often simply quit eating and die. He then enlists his son to help him toss the poor turtles into a river. Cock sees this as being cruel, but his father insists on teaching his son “One, life is not fair.” And two, “You either realize that you need to stay in the place where you were born, or you take the chance of dying out there elsewhere.” This seemingly obscure advice hits home later in the story when Cock faces the reality that he may need to run his father’s house painting business after the man’s sudden disappearance at a country club polo meet.

Avid readers of Singleton know that he is adroit at breaking literary rules, those rules he has certainly mastered as both an established author, a student of the classics, and a long-time literature professor. One transgression he artfully puts on display is the abundant use of absurd dialogue (a hallmark of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch among others), especially when his well-meaning characters engage in conversations with those with much faultier moral compasses or those suffering from incurable ignorance. This quite often results in impeccably timed comedic retorts, sometimes vocalized by his protagonists and other times barely suppressed.

There is a scene in the story “I Have This Thing About Being Wrong,” where Edgar, a “slightly sought-after copyeditor hired out by both big-time publishing houses and university presses” is having an argument with his neighbor Reese, a small-time weather man for a “local access” channel, about Reese’s wife Deadora’s community theater aspirations and how she was even “named after one of Shakespeare’s more famous characters.” Edgar’s inner dialogue takes over as he silently lashes out at his neighbor, then quickly tones down his own rhetoric lest he be mistaken:

I didn’t say, “Desdemond’s the name of the character, you idiot, not Deadora. There’s no Deadora in Shakespeare.” I didn’t say this because I have this thing about being wrong, and for all I knew there might’ve been a Deadora in Cymbeline, or one of those other plays not shown or taught often. There’s a tree called a Deodar. Maybe Deadora’s parents got confused while naming their daughter.

Speaking of names, Singleton’s stories teem with characters and places stuck with ironic, humorous, and often unfortunate proper names and sobriquets. In addition to Cock Walker and Deadora (Edgar pronounces it as Dead-Ora), the reader will encounter a man named Coast (named after a bar of soap his mother once believed would “wash everything away so I wouldn’t get pregnant”), Summer Buck who works for “some kind of Lutheran do-gooder association” which runs a suburban home for mentally challenged adult men, and three generations of Tolberts – Big Less, Little Less, and Littlest. Then there is Frank and Frankie, a married couple whose names “sound like a backyard barbecue request.”

In addition to actual towns found in the South, some of the scenes take place in fictional locales, perhaps based on real ones. Spot is one example, known for its depiction on the map as well as for “Camp Spot—once advertised as the only summer camp for albinos.” In “Protecting Witnesses and Witnessing Protection,” Calvin Cline, a man who makes his living creating celebrity voodoo dolls out of dryer lint, is banished from his home in the town of Payne by his wife Velvey. “That’s right: I live in Payne, South Carolina. Before Velvey sent me away, we lived in Payne. She still does.”

“Who gathers the withered rose?” – William Faulkner, “Soldier’s Pay”

You may think that this tasty quote serves simply to check the box of the aforementioned unwritten rule regarding Faulkner citations in Southern book reviews. However, it can justly be applied to George Singleton as he looks past—way past—the superficial façade often associated with Southern culture. The reader will not find magnolias in bloom or azaleas dripping with pinks and whites. They will find, however, those beautiful (and not-so beautiful) souls among us who are really trying to make things better. People who look for decency, kindness, and understanding in the face of ignorance and adversity and, in many cases, their very own fatal flaws. People who work for organizations aiming to enrich their communities despite their ridiculously unfortunate names such as: Cartographers Without Borders, Cock Rescue (“some kind of nearly nonprofit thing to save the lives of roosters, seeing as urban chicken owners don’t want roosters”), a group that focuses on landscaping blighted neighborhoods known as Providing Urban Blooms Each Spring, and the Veterans Against Guns in North America who proudly wear their own curious acronym emblazoned across their ball caps.

George Singleton

In The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs, George Singleton once again proves that he is a singular observer of people and culture. A prolific author with a deviously sarcastic wit and a wildly creative mind, he has the enviable ability to point out the weirdness of this complex geography we inhabit in a wickedly amusing way while still recognizing the dignity and grace of his neighbors. Singleton never makes fun at the expense of the meek; he only punches up and, then, does so with an uncommon mix of ferociousness and self-deprecation. If you are already a fan of George Singleton, this collection certainly belongs on your bookshelf dedicated to his virtuosity. If you’re a new reader, it’s a wonderfully accessible introduction.


  1. Dr. Ron Cooper says

    Singleton will visit the College of Central Florida (Ocala) for a free and open-to-the-public reading on Tuesday, February 27th, at 7 PM.

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