Drowning in Gruel

Drowning in Gruel

by George Singleton

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Acclaimed short-story master George Singleton follows the lives and schemes of the citizens of fictitious Gruel, South Carolina, in search of glory, seclusion, money, revenge, and a meaningful existence. In these nineteen tales, young Gruelites learn lessons when confronted with neighbors who might not be as blind as they appear, dermatologists intent on

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Acclaimed short-story master George Singleton follows the lives and schemes of the citizens of fictitious Gruel, South Carolina, in search of glory, seclusion, money, revenge, and a meaningful existence. In these nineteen tales, young Gruelites learn lessons when confronted with neighbors who might not be as blind as they appear, dermatologists intent on eradicating birthmarks, and fathers prone to driving on half-inflated tires in order to flirt with cashiers. Meanwhile, the town's older citizens try to make sense out of dogs that heal wounds, lawn-mowing dead men, wives who don't appreciate gas masks for Valentine's Day, and children who mix their mother's ashes with housepaint. Hilarious and tragic, George Singleton's unforgettable characters try to overcome their limitations as best they can.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[The] unchallenged king of the comic Southern short story."

"Thank God for George Singleton, who makes us laugh and makes us think."-THE TIMES-PICAYUNE (New Orleans)

Publishers Weekly
Singleton returns to the small South Carolina town where he set his acclaimed first novel, Novel, for this delightfully obsessive collection of stories, which reads like a group celebration of the excess and eccentricities found in the tiny Southern hamlet of Gruel. The only common element: a shared preoccupation with staying put in, getting out of, coming home to and passing through Gruel. From the owner of Roughhouse Billiards, who sells hot dogs, to the proprietor of the army-navy surplus store, who hawks gas masks as Valentine's Day gifts, the citizens of Gruel form a backdrop against which the more transient characters-the women's studies major who visits to compete in the town's car decorating contest; the freelance indexer fired for listing Republicans under "Idiotic behavior"-stand out in sharper relief for their quirky loneliness and creative longings. Singleton is so careful to include references to Southern literary life and the short story form that some exchanges feel rigged, but in the book's quiet moments, his people hit a tragicomic zenith. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Nineteen short stories by the author of The Half-Mammals of Dixie are collected here to make up an outrageous imaginary town. Gruel, SC, is too far from civilization to have reaped the rewards of the New South: no fast food, no motels, no endlessly replicated chain stores or restaurants. Lacking this prosperity and mired in the old times, Gruel residents scramble to escape their dreary lives. Whether it's hitting the travel circuit to exhibit the largest litter of puppies born in America, which, sadly, die one by one before the tour ends, or poaching trees to sell as low-priced alternatives to those fancy spruces for Christmas, Gruelians learn to get by. By turns dismal and funny, Singleton's collection is cohesive and constantly entertaining. A recommended new voice in Southern Gothic.-Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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. Astrong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers' appreciation for the down-home whimsy of these tales.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt


When the stray, bighearted, mixed-breed female birthed twenty-four puppies all the exact size of a canned Vienna sausage, Watt Pinson made the mistake of calling up a friend of a friend who had an acquaintance at the local news station sixty miles away. At this point Watt hadn’t even named the dog, hadn’t let her in the house. She had been circling his property for a couple weeks, and ate what scraps he set out at dusk. Sometimes she slept next to the woodpile, other times Watt found her beneath his work van or in a tamped-down section of monkey grass edging his back deck. Watt’s wife, Mattie, left the back door open one Thursday evening, the dog flashed inside, and began the long process of exuding a litter of runts between the couch and wingback chair. Watt came home, saw the mess, and remarked how lucky he was to own a carpet cleaning company.
           Mattie said, “I wasn’t paying attention. I left the door open while I took out the garbage. I didn’t even see her around.”
           “Twenty-four has to be some kind of record. Even if it isn’t a record, I bet if we get one of those fancy scales that drug runners use, we’d find out that all these dogs are the same. That never happens. There’s always one big pup, and one really little one that usually dies off from not getting to a teat.”
           Mattie went and found an old comforter in the garage—something that a client gave them when even industrial steam cleaning couldn’t get out the stains—and wrapped it around the bitch. Mattie said, “I’m tired of these yuppies driving all the way out here when they’re bored with their dogs and throwing them out. Or when the dog eats upholstery.”
           The Pinsons owned another ten dogs, all ex-strays, that found their way from crossroads, around woods, through haphazard trailer parks, past a Christmas tree farm, to the Pinsons’ yard in Gruel, South Carolina. They’d spent five grand to have a back acre fenced off, bought upwards of seventy pounds of dry dog food a week, and employed two different veterinarians—one for spaying and neutering, the other who made yearly shot house calls.
           Watt pulled a hardback chair out of the kitchen and set it down five feet from the stray. “This dog must be Catholic or something, what with this many kids. Let’s name her Sister. Like a nun, you know.”
           Mattie didn’t say anything about how a nun wouldn’t have kids. She looked at the dog and said, “Is your name Sister? Do you want to be named Sister?” in her highest voice.
           The dog weighed not more than forty pounds, and looked mostly mottled hyena. Sister wagged her tail, raised her head, and nosed newborns toward her belly. “I need to call somebody up and see what the story is with hand-nursing these puppies. There ain’t no way they’ll survive otherwise.”
           Then Watt called his friend Yarbo, who called his friend Brewer, who called the man at WYFF to say that there was a human interest story going on somewhere in the middle of nowhere, between the towns of Forty-Five and Cross Blood. By the time Mattie had a saucepan of milk warmed on the stove and Watt found an eyedropper and an ear syringe beneath the bathroom sink, a news crew was on its way.
           There aren’t twenty-four people I know who’d take a free dog apiece, Watt thought. Mattie won’t take a dog to the pound, and there’s no way I can take another dog. He stuck the ear syringe down to one of the all-white puppies and said, “This might make you moo instead of bark.”
           Then he thought of how there was an empty burlap fertilizer sack in the garage and the Saluda River not two miles away.
           Mattie scooped up two handsful of puppies and said, “Sister looks like a calico cat. I wonder why all these dogs are either all-black or all-white. I wonder who the father was.”
           Watt thought about taking a drywall bucket out back, filling it with water, and drowning one—maybe two—puppies at a time and nestling them back down in the ruined comforter after his wife went to bed each night. He said, “I don’t understand the genetic makeup of people, much less dogs.”
           He knew that he couldn’t harm Sister’s puppies, though. He’d gone out of his way, while cleaning the carpet of a near Italian restaurant on Friday nights after they closed, of shooing cockroaches instead of sucking them up into his machine. He’d driven his van on two wheels for twenty yards once while veering from a raccoon blinded in the road. There were flying squirrels in the attic and mice living in the crawl space that he couldn’t harm—vermin too smart to enter the live traps he set out. He held a one-ounce puppy and eased milk into its mouth.
           “These dogs are so small I can’t even tell which are male and which are female. They’re like kittens,” Mattie said. “It won’t cost much to get them fixed, at least.”
           The other ten dogs—all relegated to the backyard while Sister continued her motherly functions—began barking. The cameraman and reporter pulled into the long gravel driveway, their high beams on.
“How’d y’all find out about this?” Watt asked. He didn’t open the front door more than two feet.
           The reporter was Celine Ruiz, and Watt recognized her. She appeared to be half Hispanic and half Asian, and much shorter than she appeared on the TV. Sometimes at night he’d watch the eleven o’clock news before going out to a carpeted Pizza Hut, Shoney’s, or Kampai of Tokyo that he had on contract some fifty miles away. Watt’s clients trusted him enough to give him keys, and most of the restaurant managers said he could partake of the beer coolers, the soft drink dispensers, that he could make a pot of coffee if he cared. Watt worked from midnight until six in the morning many days, came home to take a nap, then fulfilled his residential orders between noon and five. When he got enough steady clients Mattie quit her bank telling job, learned how to operate the steamer, and came along. Mostly she moved chairs and tables from one side of a dining area to the other, then back. She drank free Sprite some nights, Dr Pepper the others. Mattie liked to take a salt or pepper shaker, sugar packets, the cayenne pepper containers from the pizza joints. “I like to live dangerously,” she said more than once.
           “I’m Celine Ruiz,” the reporter said. “We hear you have an amazing litter of runts on your hands here.”
           She was beautiful, with long straight dark hair and almond-shaped eyes. Watt Pinson said, “I gave at the office,” because he could think of nothing else.
           “This could make you famous,” the cameraman said. He had his camera running. “Man, I’ve seen this happen before.” The cameraman appeared to be an albino black man, an ex-student who studied communications in college before a professor finally said something like, “People will fear you giving their news, even the sports. And especially the weather.”
           “You are Watt Pinson, right?” Celine said. “Are you the man who owns Pinson Carpet Cleaner? We got a call.”
           Watt Pinson wanted to plain call his place Pinson Cleaners, but knew that PC might turn off prospective clients. He said, “Yeah, we got a dog in here with twenty-four pups. But I don’t want to talk about it. We got a bunch of dogs, and some people might think we’re weirdos or something.” He looked at the cameraman and said, “Please turn that off. I don’t want that on TV.”
           The albino said, “Oh, we promise not to show this part.”
           Celine Ruiz slipped through the door, and held her microphone up like a torch. The albino followed. Mattie Pinson got up from the floor, an eyedropper in one hand and a black puppy in the other. She said, “Hello.”
           Celine nodded. She looked back at the albino and said, “Hit that light switch behind you. I’ll stand right here.” She turned forty-five degrees. She backed up toward Sister and almost stepped on her front paws.
           The albino said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
           Celine did a countdown and said, “We’re here in the den of Watt and Mattie Pinson, and it appears that a miracle has taken place between Forty-Five and Cross Blood. Twenty-four puppies were born to a stray dog that showed up in their yard not long ago.” Watt Pinson looked at his wife and shrugged his shoulders. Why did he ever call up Yarbo? he thought. Why did he give up so much information? The cameraman zoomed in on Sister nursing a dozen of the puppies. Celine turned to Watt Pinson and said, “Mr. Pinson, come on in here and tell us about how all this got started.”
           “I wasn’t there when it got started,” he said. “It’s not like I’m the father.” He said it in all seriousness. “This poor dog showed up at our place a couple weeks ago, but she was so skittish she wouldn’t come near us. I set out food for her, you know, because that’s what you do. We just named her Sister a couple hours ago. She somehow snuck in and started dropping puppies like a faulty gumball machine.”
           Mattie said from off camera, “All those goddamn yuppies keep throwing dogs out their car doors, especially right after Christmas,” but it got dubbed out before the piece aired on Friday’s Hey, South Carolina! morning show.

Copyright © 2006 by George Singleton
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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