Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

The New, the Old and the Obscure

Books by George Singleton, Harold Brodkey and Brad Watson

By

The New

“You Want More: Selected Stories of George Singleton” (2020) by George Singleton

Comedic, dark, and full of heart, Singleton’s stories break through Southern stereotypes and offer readers a seat at his table, in his fictional world, where we become part of the community. This is the kindest of gestures a storyteller can possess and the collected work of Singleton’s stories grants the listener timeless entertainment.

In one of the most humorous stories, “This Itches, Y’all,” a man whose claim to fame was starring as a boy with head lice in an educational documentary for a local television station, returns to his hometown for his high school reunion. Here, Singleton’s narrator bitingly confronts his hometown: “Not that I have any advanced degrees in anything, but I would bet that there’s something wrong – and telling – about an entire town of adults who still have first names ending in -y, -i, or -ie.”

In another story, a boy’s show-and-tell project involves revealing notes and gifts from his father to his teacher, who he’s been dating since his wife left to pursue a singing career, leaving one to wonder if the children aren’t more grounded than the adults.

Many of the stories take place in the small Southern town of Forty-Five, focusing on the relationships people have with each other, their work and their home, where men and women are pulled back by their roots while still trying to wrangle free.

The Old

“Stories in an Almost Classical Mode” (1988) by Harold Brodkey

Few writers in American letters have focused their writing so deeply on the interior as Harold Brodkey – Jamaica Kincaid, Annie Dillard and John Edgar Wideman come to mind. But Brodkey’s style is stunningly original in that his narrator seems to be the human soul. Often criticized for gregarious wordplay, Brodkey’s writing feels more like a true artist striving to attain the closest possible connection between thought and page.

One of the author’s most impressive feats is his ability to write stories about happiness, focusing on joy and the emotional impact of that freedom as a central conflict. He burrows through the moments we often overlook – the way a father holds his son in the air, the feeling of water on the skin, the sound one hears in memories. There, in those recesses, we experience a glimmer of what it means to be present and alive.

Brodkey famously took over 30 years to write his first novel, “The Runaway Soul,” (1991) under contract, and much of the themes and characters in that novel appear in these stories, which were first thought to be fragments of the novel about a boy’s attempt to find his identity in an adoptive family. But this collection is nothing short of a masterpiece and confirms Brodkey’s place as one of America’s most gifted and attentive writers.

In the title story, a man attempts to recount the relationship he had with his dying adoptive mother when he was a boy. As she suffers, he wonders if he has somehow internalized her pain, and now expresses that madness in a symphony of memory. He writes, “To watch somebody and think about them is in a way to begin to have the possibility of becoming them.”

The Obscure

“Last Days of the Dog Men” (1996) by Brad Watson

Brad Watson, a revered author and teacher, died in July, leaving behind two collections of stories and two novels, most recently, “Miss Jane” (2016), which was long-listed for the National Book Award.

Watson’s first collection, “Last Days of the Dog Men,” is at once completely original while also universally accessible. It’s a book about dogs and the humans living amongst them. But it’s also a book about love, friendship and morality. In these stories, Watson reveals how people aspire to love the same as dogs, but often fail despite their best attempts.

In one story Watson takes us into the physical world of a seeing-eye dog as he helps his owner cross the street. In another, one of the most memorable in the collection, a recent widow tries to develop a better relationship with her husband’s dog. When the dog runs away, she goes on a failed search with a neighbor she can’t stand and finds that dogs and men alike have given her a new freedom.

Watson writes: “It had not been her time to go. But she had been close enough to see into that moment and she did not dislike what she had seen.”

This short volume, along with Watson’s stunning follow-up, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” (2010) are both worth picking up from your local bookseller in honor of the memorable characters, both animal and human alike, he left behind.