When Novel Aker's wife loses her last remaining relatives in a shocking accident,
she uses the proceeds of the estate to start the business of her dreams, a weight-loss clinic, the Sneeze 'n' Tone, in Gruel, South Carolina. At the same time, Rebekah suggests that Novel quit his job. Driving the Viper-Mobile, Novel goes from town to town, displaying a variety of reptiles to any interested parties.
Bekah doesn't know that Novel has a second job, writing speeches for lieutenant-governors and Novel doesn't know that Bekah harbors a few secrets herself, all of which leads to the demise of the marriage. Bekah closes the Sneeze 'n' Tone, which Novel reopens as The Gruel Inn Writer's Retreat. The paying writer-residents are offered a complimentary continental breakfast from Maura-Lee Snipes, owner of the Gruel Bakery and a former successful client of the Sneeze 'n' Tone.
Maura-Lee does well with her special recipe for Jesus crust, pleased to provide for the writers, but Novel hasn't the patience for these pseudo-intellectuals, continental breakfast aside, and closes down the Writer's Retreat, where he lives alone, working on his autobiography...but that's another story.
His writing experiment less than successful, Novel accepts a position as the official Gruel Historian, working from an office at Gruel Normal School, a windowless silo filled with shelves of newspaper clippings. In his research, Novel addresses the true history of Gruel, grappling with questions that have nagged at his subconscious, but he hasn't the imagination to construct the whole picture. That's where Bekah comes in, convincing Novel to protect his own self-interests should things turn bad.
Singleton has written a cast of characters that would shake any family tree to its roots: Bekah's parents, wealthy entrepreneurs who engineer a constant supply of industrious orphans; Larry and Barry, the town housepainter-geniuses; and James and Joyce, Novels’ adopted siblings. And more: "Jeff the owner,” proprietor of Roughhouse Billiards; Victor Dees of the Army Surplus store; Novel’s pot-smoking, yoga-practicing parents, Ted and Olivia Akers and a variety of related families.
Distracted by an abundance of curiosity and paranoia about his Gruel neighbors, Novel is the perfect foil for the nefarious dealings of this quirky town, a hopeful man, disinclined to cynicism unless pushed to the edge of believability. Most families hide a few skeletons in the family closet, but Singleton fearlessly rattles each and every one in Gruel's closets, as they dance their macabre burlesque, tiptoeing through Southern revisionist history.
Singleton writes his tale with broad comic strokes, but enough humanity to make us root for these weirdos. Besides, any novel titled Novel, with a picture of a jackalope on the cover has to be worth the price of admission.