Saturday, November 19, 2005

BOOK REVIEW/ GoHah
The Half Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $22.95. 304 pages.

Welcome to the South Carolina town named Forty-Five, where nearly everyone gets hitched the first weekend out of high school and the local class reunion has a 47-way tie for Longest Married. Meet the man who invented the White Trash Monopoly game, and the PR flak behind the "eight glasses of water" a day rule. Discover the Rube Goldberg Syndrome, and the Not-Drafted-Not-Registered disability that inflicts sufferers with a "tendency to irritate others."

Find out about the New Age bookstore owner whose business failed because he put the feng shui books in the wrong place. And the motivational speaker for the KKK, and the man with thumbs like Ping- Pong paddles. And what exactly did the Salty Showfish aquarium salesman do to earn stunned silence and stares "as if I'd piped up about how Jesus was a gay man who couldn't decide which of the twelve disciples to date seriously"?

The South will get a rise out of you again with the marvelously skewed and skewering collection of stories that make up George Singleton's "The Half-Mammals of Dixie," a book by turns raucous and enigmatic, and by and large inspired and inventive. But this is the New South of sorts, maybe still a works-in-progress, something akin to Dogpatch in Dockers, or diehard Confederates in anger management, or hard little wiseacres on God's Little Acre.

From such surroundings as flea markets, bowling alleys and swamplands to college campuses, expensive restaurants and the deli section of the Winn-Dixie, the new-improved-taste Kickapoo joy juice blend of Tom Robbins, Carl Hiaasen and Hee-Haw honeys is what first hits, but there's a slightly bitter and sometimes indefinable little aftertaste to some of the stories. These less broad and more haunting evocations startle and linger, bearing subtlety and secrets -- whether revealed or remaining intriguingly beyond full grasp after an end-of-chapter free-fall. The small-town realism and under- the-surface scrutiny of Sherwood Anderson emerges, as well as the Southern gothic textures and misshapen characterizations of Flannery O'Conner.

So we have "Deer Gone," an uproarious yokel-dom and dumber kitchen-sink-and-all tale of Bambi-cide and chain gangs and prison breaks and the promise of a tractor pull. The slopehead good ol' boys here can only aspire to white trash and "a real job repo-ing," while the ghetto-phile D-Man and Meltdaddy, "whiter than freezer- burned slices of Sunbeam bread," practice crossing and recrossing their arms as if in "semaphore to bring an F-16 safely atop a battleship." Amid the chaos and myriad cast and the heretofore inconceivable 101st use for a dead deer, however, is a story intimated to involve "mysterious ways, and sin, and redemption -- about signs, betrayal, and resistance," not that Singleton is drawing diagrams or pointing the way.

The book's title story, sending-up motivational seminars, has a more distinct jumping-off point to its faintly utopian implications. The main character, "trying to figure some things out about the human condition," faces a trying time of it, though, in situations with such inanities as "everybody holding hands and singing `if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands,' which wasn't easy, seeing as we were told not to let go of our partners on either side."

The most purposefully disjointed piece, "How to Collect Fishing Lures," can almost serve as an emotionless how-to with some practical information detailed by a laid-off, divorced executive forced to find humbling ways to make a living. Simmering beneath the nuts-and-bolts of the step-by-step, though, is a seething resentment erupting despite the admonition that, "No matter what, do not think about your life prior to collecting and selling fishing lures."

Also among the 15 stories are a couple convention-challenged tales of woe and woo. In "Answers," the relationship of a psychobabble-spewing wife and her husband (who doesn't seem to have the patience to finish his book about Job) is on a windy path to domestic salvation and spiritual renewal despite -- rather than due to -- their protracted playing of a game of the At-Home Marriage Repair Kit. Things are relatively more down-to-earth in "Page-A- Day," where you think you know the drill: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy becomes phony primitive artist specializing in depictions of conjoined twins with prehensile tails, and gets girl back, both now "attuned to what catches marriage on certain days, haphazardly, just in time."

With less serendipity involved, an attuned Singleton, in the winning "The Half-Mammals of Dixie," captures in just the right words the vicissitudes of life and the resilience of individual, often off-kilter, lives.

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