"Work Shirts for Madmen"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 12, 2007)
"Oh, I believe in a Higher Power…but my Higher Power might be Buddha. It might be that Trickster fellow in Native American myth…I'm from fucking South Carolina, so I've had the Jesus stuff pounded into me enough, and I kept drinking all the while. Maybe I need a higher Higher Power. It seems to me if a Higher Power were in charge, our country wouldn't have poverty-stricken, uninsured, poorly educated people voting for Republicans who want to keep them down all the time no matter what."
Told in an offbeat and colloquial style, artist Harp Stillman's account of his attempts to give up drinking and return to a more productive life is by turns a satiric, absurd, and wildly comic romp through contemporary American life. Associating with wacky characters who lead even wackier lives than his own, Harp, always full of self-mockery, tries to overcome some of his disastrous public mistakes from the past and free himself from the control of alcohol so that he can fulfill his commissions to create large public sculptures in a variety of cities throughout the country.
Harp's wife RayLou, steadfast in spite of his problems, is a sometime environmental activist who has just rescued a dozen snapping turtles being used by a medical lab studying PCB contamination, creating a "home" for them on their remote property in Ember Glow, South Carolina. A far more successful artist than Harp, at least in terms of sales, RayLou creates ceramic "face jugs," which she sells at folk fairs all over the South, and it is her income from these sales which is currently supporting them.
It was Harp's disastrous foray into ice sculptures for a $5000 per plate Republican fund-raiser in Columbia, SC, which made the national news on CNN and turned him into a pariah. Commissioned to create busts in ice for all the most famous southern politicians—Strom Thurmond, Newt Gingrich, and the three Presidents (Reagan, Bush, and Bush), among others--the wildly creative (and anti-Republican) Harp produced sculptures within sculptures, using a two-stage process. On the outside, the busts looked exactly like the men they represented, but as the sculptures melted under the lights, their inner sculptures were revealed. Strom Thurmond melted into Mussolini, the three Presidents became the Curly, Moe, and Larry, and Newt Gingrich became Koko the gorilla. And that was just for starters. The Republican National Committee is now out to "get" him. Worried that a contract may have been ordered on his life, Harp decides his only chance is to lie low, get into rehab, and hope that rehab works.
At rehab he discovers that all the in-patients are wearing work shirts with names on them, and since he has just won a large commission from the city of Birmingham, Alabama, to build twelve huge angels in metal, he is delighted to see that one of the participants wears a shirt bearing the logo of a welding company. He quickly hires him, only to discover all the work shirts are used and that his new employee has never touched a welding torch.
Harp's attempts to complete these twelve sculptures and stay sober form the body of the novel, and the characters he meets—or who come to visit him at Ember Glow—prove to be some of the most bizarre characters in modern fiction—three characters whose elbows are fused and will not bend (the "Elbow Brethren"), a character who gives himself a tracheotomy, a man who lives with four giant anteaters, Harp's own father (who runs a scam involving slow driving on the highway) and mother (now a film director), a Kampgrounds of America director who is a Native American with a PhD, and even a potential assassin.
In keeping with the frenetic activity, crazy characters, and off-the-wall behavior, author George Singleton keeps his style simple, allowing the offbeat, sometimes bizarre, action to drive the novel. Down-home images add to the sense of place and provide local color—a man has "eyebags [that] could've been used for pole-vault pits," and RayLou uses broken toilet bowl pieces for the teeth of her face jugs. The voice of Harp Spillman rings true, providing a larger than life, and sometimes satiric, picture of rehab, southern country living, the art world, and the extremes to which a man may be willing to go to in an effort to accomplish his goals.
As Harp wonders about his memory losses, his paranoia, and his feeling that RayLou may be controlling things behind the scenes, he vividly portrays the attitudes of someone who wants to remain sober while facing enormous temptations. His sense of artistic mission (and his desire for the $120,000 he'll get if he completes the twelve angels on time) keep him going, and the misadventures and kooky complications he faces keep the reader going, even when s/he may begin to tire of the constant emphasis on the drinking life and its pervasive perils.
Very much in the tradition of alcohol-fueled stories by William Kennedy (Ironweed) or Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Singleton's novel is much lighter, more irreverent, and more fun-filled. Unique in its approach and fun to read, it uses the narrator's own self-mockery and his attitudes toward the crazy characters around him to lighten the mood and give the narrator's self-imposed problems a sense of perspective. As Harp himself says, "I saw No Exit when I was in college. And now I [was] living it. But I felt ashamed for making so many presumptions, and for a second felt as though I might cry—though looking back, I'm sure it was because of sleep deprivation. And I might've gotten No Exit confused with Nausea."
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Work Shirts for Madmen at Harcourt
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- These People Are Us: Stories (2001)
- The Half Mammals of Dixie : Stories (2002)
- Why Dogs Chase Cars: Tale From a Beleagured Boyhood (2004)
- Novel (2005)
- Drowning in Gruel : Stories (2006)
- Work Shirts for Madmen (September 2007)
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- Official website for George Singleton
- Harcourt interview with George Singleton
- NPR profile of George Singleton
- A Short Sotry by George Singleton
- BookSlut review of These People Are Us
- Harcourt excerpt from Novel
- Seattle Times review of Novel
- Sourthern Authors interview on Work Shirts for Madmen
- Nashville Scene review of Work Shirts for Madmen
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About the Author:
George Singleton was born in Anaheim, California and lived there until he was seven. He grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina. He graduated from Furman University in 1980 with a degree in philosophy, and from University of North Carolina-Greensboro with an MFA in creative writing. More than a hundred of his stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies.
Singleton has taught English and fiction writing at Francis Marion College, the Fine Arts Center of Greenville County, and the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. He has been a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina and University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has given readings and taught classes at a number of universities and secondary schools.
He lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with the clay artist Glenda Guion and their eleven dogs and one cat.