From South Carolina writer Singleton (Novel, 2005, etc.), a collection of 19 reprinted stories, some of them suffering from a slight case of the cutes.
The fictional hamlet of Gruel is one of those towns that time forgot, though it attempts various scams to attract tourists and boasts Victorian houses that speculators can buy for about five percent of what they would cost elsewhere. While some characters reappear from one story to another and keep showing up at the same old places, particularly Gruel BBQ and Roughhouse Billiards, there’s a surprising amount of mobility in this South Carolina town. Strangers find themselves drawn here for inexplicable reasons (or Victorian houses), while natives who left and vowed never to return somehow make their way back. Many of the characters have more education than the stereotypical small-town rube; a surprising number either work or have worked in academe (Singleton is a writing teacher). Thus, for every story like “Runt,” which depicts Sister the Wonder Dog and her record-setting litter of 24, there’s one like “The Novels of Raymond Carver,” which involves a made-up course on the noted short-story writer’s made-up book-length fiction. The guy who sells gas masks as the perfect Valentine’s Day present to protect the one you love in “Snipers” is balanced by the heart-attack victim who cuts a swathe through his neighbors’ backyards on a power lawnmower in “John Cheever, Rest in Peace,” a sardonic riff on “The Swimmer.” Perhaps the best story here is “Soldiers in Gruel,” which features an overeducated Northern woman who brings her brand of conceptual art to the annual car show and finds a deeper meaning than her schooling could ever have provided.
A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy of these tales.