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by George Singleton

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Set in the town of Gruel, South Carolina, this first novel by George Singleton, master of the comic short story, is the tale of a young man named Novel (his brother's name is James; his sister's is Joyce), a professional snake handler who stumbles across strange doings while he sits in a motel room writing his autobiography. As he struggles to recount his life


Set in the town of Gruel, South Carolina, this first novel by George Singleton, master of the comic short story, is the tale of a young man named Novel (his brother's name is James; his sister's is Joyce), a professional snake handler who stumbles across strange doings while he sits in a motel room writing his autobiography. As he struggles to recount his life story, he uncovers-and finds himself starring in-a decades-old town secret, one that can blow him and his fellow citizens sky-high. Funny as only George Singleton can be, full of Southern mischief and wit, Novel is a crazed and crazy fictional whirlwind of drinking, motel-living, art-forgery-committing, pool-playing redneck charm.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"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 Seattle Times

"Thank God for George Singleton, who makes us laugh and makes us think."--The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

Priya Jain
Novel's Southern sensibility and own strange history -- his adopted siblings, James and Joyce, may or may not be the offspring of Irish revolutionaries, and his parents were eaten by alligators -- keep him from being too meanspirited, and Singleton's drollness and slow-release jokes sustain the narrative even during its wackier moments; in a typical comment, when the local bar owner boasts that Gruel came ''this close'' to being Disney's choice of site for the Magic Kingdom, Novel notes, ''he held his thumb and index finger five inches apart, which must've been about right on a regular Rand McNally Page 1.''
— The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A state-sponsored snake handler and defrocked speechwriter finds even more unusual outlets for his peculiar talents, in the South Carolina author's meticulously deranged first novel. Just down the road a piece from the literary territories of James Wilcox and T. R. Pearson is the town of Gruel, where the story begins with a literal bang. Novel Akers's mother-in-law, Ina Cathcart, perishes along with her common-sense-challenged son Irby, whose lit cigarette encounters her oxygen tube as he's driving Mom home from the hospital. Then, things get strange. Novel (so named by his ex-concert-pianist parents, because it seemed to fit with those of his older adopted Irish orphan siblings James and Joyce), having lost his job as an itinerant advocate for snakes' rights (and ecological usefulness)-which is actually a cover for the subversive speeches Novel penned for a clueless lieutenant governor-decides to hunker down and write his autobiography (to be titled, of course, Novel). His wife (Re)Bekah, unhinged by either the above-mentioned fatal accident or her own possible complicity in her daddy's putative suicide, skips town, leaving Novel to re-renovate the venerable Gruel Inn (which Bekah had turned briefly into the Sneeze 'n' Tone weight-loss spa) as a writers' retreat. Novel hangs with philosophical bartender Jeff the Owner, deflects the wandering attention of surplus storeowner (and, probably, Bekah's hired contract killer) Victor Dees, and half-heartedly romances recently slimmed-down Maura Lee Snipes (whose emporium features her specialty "Jesus Crust"), before being hired as Gruel's town historian. So it goes, interspersed with Novel's memories of his siblings' sociopathic merriment andhis eccentric father's nuggets of useless wisdom ("A great pianist should keep a rabbit with him at all times . . . to keep his hands warm"). There's a novel somewhere inside Novel, but it's buried under the gags, many of which are just about irresistible. Singleton (stories: The Half-Mammals of Dixie, 2002, etc.) may have invented a new genre. Call it The Hoot. Author tour

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

MY BROTHER-IN-LAW should've left his car window rolled up when he chose to smoke with his mother beside him in the passenger seat, oxygen strapped to her nostrils. They were driving between Graywood Emergency Regional Memorial hospital and her home in rural Gruel. My mother-in-law, Ina-whom I called "Vudge" behind her back, insisting in my head that her middle name was Ina-had gotten released after a lung-surgery stint. According to oncologist Dr. Rolander, they should've filmed the procedure it went so textbook. A third of one lung got clipped out, no chemo or radiation would be scheduled, and Vudge could go on to live another seventy years. Rolander might've been the only good real doctor in all of Forty-Five, South Carolina. When he came out of surgery he told all of us-brother-in-law Irby, my wife, Rebekah, and me-"Man, that went way better than I ever thought!" I tried my best to sigh relief.

This, of course, all took place outside the surgery waiting room exactly five days before Irby rolled his window down, which caused the ember of his cigarette to fly off, perform some kind of trick acrobatic backflip witnessed normally during Christmas, Fourth of July, New Year's Eve, or Confederate's Day celebrations in South Carolina when bottle rockets get minds of their own, and finally embed itself between Vudge's left nostril and the rubber tube spraying pure-tee oxygen in her face.

The resulting explosion was merciless, as you can imagine-car, in-laws, and metal canister lifting skyward like a regular Scud missile. It got mentioned on a local television station newscast sixty miles away, not just on Forty-Five's local access.

But let me get back to the surgery waiting room and explain what went on there, and what must've been a daily, ongoing routine. Evidently a six A.M. surgery admittance of a friend, relative, or long-lost acquaintance becomes the social highlight of the year for everyone in Graywood County. My wife and now-dead brother-in-law took cushioned seats between the giant-screen TV-morning cartoons, no national news-and the complimentary doughnut/coffee/hot chocolate/PayDay candy bar rolling kiosk. Blacks and whites gathered in groups of their own, and I noticed right off that one set of well-wishers dressed as if going to a funeral, the other as if on their way to a tractor pull. But I don't want to generalize whatsoever. I don't want to categorize my wife's people. I'm sure that some white people wear bib overalls and stained, bent LET THE BIG TIRES ROLL caps to loved ones' awkward eulogies.

People called out to each other from one side of the room to the other. Introductions were made and more than once I heard, "Oh, I 'member you! You went by Little Bubba when you was a boy," or "I 'member you! You had a brother in my grade name of Little Bubba, back when you was a tiny girl," or "Hey, you 'member me! I went by L'il Scooby by some. Big Stuff by some. My sister was Shonuff," and so on from across the way.

Not a magazine had been read on the wall rack, as far as I could tell. Both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on Richard Nixon's daughter's upcoming wedding in the White House.

I said, "Hey, Bekah, we should've brought some cards. Or pin the tail on the donkey." I should mention that Rebekah bragged how her name got spelled exactly like the Bible woman. Then four years into the marriage she decided to go by "Bekah." Bekah thought with such a moniker she'd come across as more easygoing, sympathetic, open-minded, and friendly. She cared. It was important in her job as a debt collector.

So she went by Bekah for another four or five years. But for all I know, since the deaths of her mother and brother she's cut it all the way down to plain Kah.

Kah, Kah, Kah.

Back in the surgery waiting room my wife said, "People act in different ways when faced with diversity. Don't judge so much."

I felt pretty sure she meant "adversity," but who knows? If I'd've predicted Vudge's and Irby's demises, Bekah's inheritance, our odd investment, the hospital's willingness to settle quickly out of court, and then Bekah's departure two months into our new life in Gruel, I might've spoken up. I said, "Why you so quiet, Irby?"

Irby and Bekah weren't twins but somehow got birthed only six months apart and both of them weighed in at eight pounds, something ounces. If it matters, Bekah came out first. She and Irby looked and acted similarly throughout life, though my wife went to college and became certified to teach first graders, then got a six-week paralegal degree in order to make a living in the Carolinas. After about a year of working for lawyers she somehow got hired on by a guy who tried to collect from ex-patients with no insurance who, for various reasons, chose not to pay their medical bills.

On a side note: I watched my wife watch everyone else in the waiting room. You could tell she picked out those who'd never paid and those who never would pay. It was uncanny.

Irby, on the other hand, spent a lot of time working odd jobs in between court-ordered community service projects. I liked my brother-in-law. If I'd've been able to predict everything, I would've yelled out for Irby to either not smoke altogether or to at least roll up his window so as not to chance the spark-fizzle-boom.

Irby stared at Fred and Wilma Flintstone on the TV. He said, "I'm quiet 'cause this has got me scared, that's all. I ain't ever thought that much how you could be here one minute and gone next. I didn't study up on history, Novel. I guess you reminded me of here-now, gone-then all the time, what with your knowledge of the things."

I never thought about it. I said, "Lord, Irby, shut up. Your mom will be okay, and you'll probably live forever."

It's true I studied history and continued to do so right before Vudge Ina went in for surgery, came out healthy within the week, then had her face melted off like an arc welder to a sheet of Bubble Wrap. As a matter of fact I'd recently finished up a fascinating biography of famed pathological liars called This Won't Hurt. To this day I have no clue what was fact and what was made up in that book.

Which brings me to this: Maybe the oxygen blowup due to Irby's keeping the window rolled down occurred otherwise, et cetera. Bekah and I followed behind Irby and Vudge, and it would take one of those slow-motion stop-freeze cameras to see what happened first: a spark in the car cab before veering down a long steep embankment going down to Lake Between; or a veer off the road, an impact, the explosion.

Me, I said nothing. Bekah, though, told cops and coroner alike that she'd take a lie detector test about what she witnessed. Seeing as she had that debt collector job, I think she got to practice, unknowingly, for the polygraph any time she wanted.

The next thing you know, my wife had inherited her childhood home, retained two lawyers well-known for keeping athletes and wrestlers out of jail up in Charlotte, and somehow settled a quarter-million-dollar negligence charge against the hospital for its oxygen tank. Bekah said, "It's a sign that what I proved to myself during that weeklong sneezing fit last year is something I should show anyone with a weight problem. You watch and see, Novel. Watch and learn. I know what I'm talking about."

We'd gone through a dual funeral for her mom and brother. I said, "If you need me to quit my job," which I didn't want to do seeing as I loved it, kind of, "I'll quit. Whatever you want."

Listen, I kind of remembered Bekah sneezing so hard and frequently two springs earlier that she lost fifteen pounds and toned her stomach down to-my opinion-a scary, scary washboard. And I kind of remembered when she had said, "You know what, Novel? One day, if I ever have the money, I'm going to open a surefire weight-loss tone-up clinic that'll baffle scientists and dietitians alike."

My first job when I got home from work back then, outside of wading through Bekah's opinions concerning that law where she couldn't call people up before nine in the morning or after nine at night, was to fill out some mileage forms and stack that day's completed surveys in descending order from "this bites" all the way to "definitely worthwhile" in regards to revisiting what I had to offer everyday citizens and schoolchildren alike. That's right: "this bites" meant good. Anyway, it was part of my job description. I don't know everything there is to know about state-funded agencies that relied on both private and public operational monies, but my boss let all of his employees know that we required valid hard-copy documentation should the legislature cut what we had to offer in the same unwincing and reckless way it did to other unneeded agencies like the North Carolina Arts Commission, the Department of Social Services, and school bus maintenance. We needed proof, by god.

I guess my boss understood that my background in American history made me one of a dozen perfect candidates to drive the Viper-Mobile around my appointed counties. Me, I would've gone with Asp-Mobile, but no one ever listened. I drove around Mecklenburg County mostly, from pre-K schools to nursing homes, a trailer attached to my step van like some kind of circus sideshow attraction. I kept the copperheads, eastern diamondbacks, and cottonmouths in the trailer. With me in the step van, though, rode rat, corn, black-, and garter snakes. And mice. Don't think I didn't comprehend the state's mission: Most people killed snakes on principle, not knowing that my reptiles helped control everything from june bugs to rodents, illegal aliens, and Yankees. Less june bugs and rodents meant more and better tobacco plants. If p, then q. If we purchase Louisiana, then we'll have more crawfish. We purchase Louisiana. Crawfish. If we throw tea in a harbor, then the British will understand our backbone. We throw tea in a harbor. Littering.

Copyright © 2005 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.

Meet the Author

GEORGE SINGLETON lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with ceramicist Glenda Guion and their mixture of strays. More than a hundred of his stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies. He teaches writing at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

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Novel 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book. I think it broke my brain just a little. I can't quite decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but will let y'all know if I figure it out.