George Singleton's debut novel features a hero named Novel, two Irish cousins named James and Joyce and a baker named Maura-Lee who is famous for her Jesus Crust. You have to hand it to South Carolina's reigning poet laureate of the bizarre: He doesn't pussyfoot around with subtlety. He'd rather club us on the funny bone—again and again.
This style of humor has been Singleton's métier for three volumes of short stories, and Novel is his attempt to stretch it to the longer form. Happily, unless you're the kind of reader who likes your fiction tucked in, zipped on and neatly pressed, Singleton makes the jump just fine. Novel reads like a long middle of the night drunken tale that gets so weird and wild it's halfway into the next day before you wonder: Did that really happen?
Once you open Novel you're in Singleton's world—Gruel, S.C., to be precise. It's a tiny town: the aforementioned bakery, one hotel, which Novel owns, and a pool hall where two paint-speckled drunks spend their days calling ridiculous shots.
A former snake handler by day and secret speechwriter for local government by night, Novel is not your typical B&B owner. He winds up possessing the Gruel Inn shortly after his mother- and brother-in-law die in a freak accident involving cigarettes and an oxygen tank. With part of the hefty legal settlement she wins, Novel's wife Bekah buys the inn and turns it into the Sneeze 'n' Tone, a weight-loss center that harnesses the caloric expenditure of sneezing. Then, after Bekah leaves him, Novel reopens it as a writers' retreat.
Although the title suggests a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the writing life, Novel is not an ordinary roman à clef. First, Singleton never makes the mistake of assuming that his protagonist is interesting by default. As soon as Novel opens his colony, the book actually shifts its focus to the crazy old coots who move in and dump their ridiculous life stories on the owner.
Singleton also refuses to indulge the annoying fallacy of writing a novel about writing while keeping his own authorial anxiety hidden. Just as Novel struggles with how to turn the inn's guests into character studies, Singleton wonders every now and then if a reader will lose interest in his invention. Then he stops himself: "I don't care that it sounds unrealistic. ... Not everything moves at a twenty-year-old crankcase oil's pace in the South."
Eventually, when the writing retreat business runs afoul, Novel blockades himself in an empty room, stocks up on hooch, and starts in on an autobiography which he entitles Novel. The deeper he gets into this project, the more he drinks, and the more he drinks, the more he begins to discover that he is at the center of a gigantic secret that encapsulates all of Gruel and then some. Eventually, Novel gets hired as the town historian to investigate.
If Novel reveals any of Singleton's growing pains as a writer, it's here. The book's lengthy and convoluted middle section becomes a bit indulgent. He's so funny it's tempting to go easy on him, but this is a short story writer who once said, dismissively, "For me, novels tend to ramble on slowly."
Indeed this one does for a bit, but it's hardly a cardinal sin when the writer has given us so much to chuckle about. Singleton is such a genius at the one-liner that I laughed aloud five times before page 50. "I'm serious as a cup of lye, man," cries Novel's brother-in-law in one scene. Another describes Barry and Larry, the two reprobate pool players, walking into a room dragging their "cue sticks behind them like petrified prehensile tails."
In a way, Novel has something in common with these two dinosaurs. It swaggers into a room full of artificially countrified southern fiction, oozing the fumy stink of what its author read growing up. There are whiffs of Faulkner here, Joseph Heller and Barry Hannah, too. Most of all, though, what makes this lark of a novel worth reading is the fact that it can exist within this tradition and carve out its own weird corner of the universe. Gruel, S.C., might be small, and it might be run by a bunch of crazies, but there's no place I'd rather hole up in to write my own first novel.