Books
1:00 pm
Mon March 17, 2008

Work Shirts for Madmen

Singleton has published three collections of stories, mostly funny, and then had only a semi-success with Novel: A Novel, in which he made fun of writers' colonies. In Work Shirts for Madmen, he has adjusted to the longer form, and this novel is a treat.

George Singleton of South Carolina ought to be considered a regional treasure. He is one of the few Southern fiction writers who sets out to be funny, on purpose, not accidentally, as when the grandmother is shot in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," or grotesquely, as when a man is dragged on his face over a wooden bridge behind runaway ponies in "Spotted Horses" or a woman named Bessie shows up with no nose in Tobacco Road.

Singleton has published three collections of stories, mostly funny, and then had only a semi-success with Novel: A Novel, in which he made fun of writers' colonies. In Work Shirts for Madmen, he has adjusted to the longer form, and this novel is a treat.

Of course, it is politically incorrect. Singleton, a recovering alcoholic, has as his protagonist a recovering alcoholic. Harp Spillman, a metal sculptor, opens this rambunctious first-person novel by waking up, as usual, on the floor of his workshop, a Quonset hut. Harp has been drunk, more or less, for twenty years. His wife, a potter with a very successful business in face jugs, is off to steal twelve huge snapping turtles from a biotoxicology lab where they are being experimented on. Harp is to chisel out a pool for the turtles on the dome of stone they call home. The property has not a blade of grass on it, rather like Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Until recently, Harp had been doing ice sculptures, but his last commission was a catastrophe. A Republican bigwig named Karl hired Harp to do ice sculptures of Great Southern Republicans for a $5,000-a-plate party. Harp obliged, but when the face of Strom Thurmond melted off it revealed an ice sculpture of Mussolini beneath. Lester Maddox morphed into Tito, Jesse Helms the Grand wizard, and so on. The man named Karl saw to it that Harp was fired.

Harp had decided to get sober and was attending therapy and meetings, but he hated them. When he gets fired, his insurance is cancelled, and Harp must go it alone, using willpower, and that is not supposed to be possible. He gets some help from three new friends, also recovering alcoholics, who have been to a doctor in Costa Rica and had their arms fused, locked at the elbow, to keep them from drinking. "One guy looked like he just called a base runner safe at home plate. Another might've posed for a yoga documentary, doing the Warrior. The third man held both arms in front of his chest, shoulder high, the classic sleepwalker look."

In order to have a task to focus on, Harp gets a commission to create twelve ten-foot-high angels, constructed entirely out of hexagonal nuts welded to rebar frames. These are created and finally moved to the front of Sloss Furnace in Birmingham where ten of the angels are crashed into at Christmas by carloads of demented teenagers bent on celestial suicide.

Harp's neighbor, meanwhile, constructs a scheme whereby he convinces suburbanites that silver kills fire ants, if laid on their hills. Then at night he drives around removing the silver coins. Harp's mother takes up moviemaking, focusing on the giant 35-pound snapping turtles. Harp learns that his lovely wife, Raylou, has them living on the stone knob because she adores marijuana and would grow it if they had any dirt on their property.

There are hysterical scenes at AA meetings, which doubtless some readers will find tasteless, but the stories are priceless. Harp's drying out is successful, one would have to say, but very near the end he concludes of the world around him, seen soberly, "It's not always good to understand what's going on in the world daily. It's not beneficial to make connections, understand motives. I hid inside the house for the rest of December and into January."

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