Click here to read reviewer Shannon Bigham's take on Drowning in Gruel.
George Singleton is a Southerner and has written a new novel that will be welcomed by his fans in the Carolinas and beyond.
The “gruel” of the title is the name of a town, a grit burg in upland South Carolina that you might love or you might want to get away from. One guy tried to migrate, getting as far as Tryon, North Carolina. There he found work as a carpet-stainer for a carpet steamer operation, paid in cash in an unmarked envelope. The gig was okay for a while until people caught on to the scam, and a mysterious woman showed up to drive him back to Gruel. As they drew closer to their destination, “I opened the door and jumped out, leaving my suitcase in the bed of the truck. I rolled and rolled in a fallow field. In the end I had only traveled some eighty miles from one place I needed to leave, forty from the other.”
Then there’s Ellis Cary, whose name run together sounds like “Hell-is-scary.” He drew a sentence of 200 hours of community service for dumping his mother’s ashes on his father’s grave. His claim that he wanted his father and mother to be together was not true; the real reason was that he wanted his fanatical germ-phobic father to spend eternity enveloped in dust. Ellis Cary’s community service consisted of painting the town red – “fire hydrants on the square, two brick alleyways…a wooden house on Old Old Greenville Road where, supposedly, Jefferson Davis slept while his troops got massacred in a variety of fields to the northeast.” While engaged in his project he meets Cushion, a flower child whose community service consists of cleaning Gruel as punishment for throwing an apple core out her car window. She opines that if they were to wed, she’d be Cushion Cary “like some kind of grocery store.” It seems fated, but the bartender warns them that “he’d met more desperate people in Gruel, that we shouldn’t get optimistic.”
This is brainy slice-of-funky-life stuff with plenty of twists, some of them cinematic in a noir kind of way. The collection of nineteen mini-sagas, which have appeared previously in various lit mags, gives a pretty well rounded picture of Gruel, a village with no town fathers, or mothers, and a petting zoo/slaughterhouse next to the BBQ restaurant. It’s a place you might want to get away from, but you can never really leave.