"Novel" by George Singleton Harcourt, 352 pp., $24 Author George Singleton likes to rattle the funny bones. He rolls out a rural Southern...

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“Novel”
by George Singleton
Harcourt, 352 pp., $24

Author George Singleton likes to rattle the funny bones. He rolls out a rural Southern stage, then puts eccentric characters in outrageous situations.

Gruel, S.C., is the setting for the short-story writer’s first novel, “Novel.” It’s about an educated snake-handler named Novel who has two adopted Irish siblings named James and Joyce. Novel’s parents, both accomplished concert musicians, leave their careers to raise the three children and scrap together an income from wild ideas that include mining gold and importing seafood.

We spend most of the time inside the adult Novel’s head as he separates from his wife, Bekah, runs a motel for would-be writers, tries to write his autobiography and uncovers Gruel’s decades-old secret.

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Singleton writes with irreverence and wit. His characters say and do crazy things with sometimes tragic outcomes, but the author makes it all believable. For instance, “Novel” opens with an account of the death of Novel’s mother-in-law, Vudge, and brother-in-law Irby in a car explosion. Irby is driving his mom home from the hospital after her lung surgery. She is still hooked up to oxygen. Irby lights a cigarette, and an ash sets off the explosion. It’s ridiculous that Irby should choose to smoke after seeing his mom through surgery made necessary by her smoking. Novel is awash with guilt for not loaning Irby cash for nicotine patches. Instead, Irby buys a pack of smokes for the ride home that ends quickly.

Coming up

George Singleton


The author of “Novel” will read at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

What Singleton does best in “Novel” is fabricate characters from the raw material of his native South. Stereotypes of uneducated, slow-talking, slow-moving Southerners are exploited, then mashed like ripe melon on hot pavement.

The plot revolves around Novel’s hunt for the Real Gruel, literally crashing walls to find hidden clues to the truth. This gets a bit boring. But by the ending Singleton is back to his fast and witty writing.

Singleton’s first novel is done with a wink — you’ll get a chuckle.