Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sons and Fathers and Head Lice: Why Dogs Chase Cars by George Singleton

The subtitle of George Singleton’s collection of linked stories, Why Dogs Chase Cars, is “Tales of a Beleaguered Boyhood.”  Fortunately, one character’s beleaguerement turns out to be every reader’s delight.

Singleton’s stories featuring Mendal Dawes of Forty-Five, South Carolina, are funny, wistful, profane, funny, charming, funny, and—above all—funny.  They go down quick and easy as meringue scraped off the top of a lemon pie, but the buzz they deliver lasts longer and is far more satisfying than anything sugar can provide.

Speaking of sugar, while reading Singleton’s 2004 collection (published by that paragon of contemporary Southern lit, Algonquin Books), I kept thinking about another terrifically funny, wistful, etc. collection of linked short stories also set in the South: Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp--which, if you read yesterday’s blog post, you already know I am flabbergastedly in love with, the kind of unhealthy love normally found between 78-year-old widows and their sweater-wearing poodles.

Nordan’s 1991 collection, also published by Algonquin, has a sweeter edge than Why Dogs Chase Cars, and it’s not just because Nordan’s protagonist is named Sugar Mecklin.  Music of the Swamp is lit by the indirect lamp of nostalgia with most of the stories set in the Mississippi Delta of the 1950s (when Nordan himself was a wee shaver).  Why Dogs Chase Cars, on the other hand, carries the weight of Reagan-era cynicism and mockery with a splash of misanthropy.

This, of course, only makes the fourteen stories even funnier.  It’s like we’re licking lemon rinds and we can’t stop laughing.

Both Music of the Swamp and Why Dogs Chase Cars explore the bonds between fathers and sons.  Sugar’s Daddy, a hopeless drunk named Gilbert, "attracts bad luck like a magnet" (Publishers Weekly) and warns his son that "the Delta is filled up with Death;" while Mendal’s father affectionately calls his only child “Fuzznuts” and “peckerhead” and is not adverse to going to great lengths to set up an elaborate practical joke months in the making in order to teach his son a valuable lesson about his place in the world.  Mendal’s mother is out of the scene—she either died or left the family under mysterious circumstances when Mendal was a baby.  Though the maternal absence deeply affects Mendal, his father more than makes up for the missing parent.

Mr. Dawes loves his son, but can be a vexation and embarrassment.  A jack-of-all-trades, he is also a compulsive Burier of Objects.  Their entire property is filled with mounds and holes-in-progress as the elder Dawes hoards old metal gasoline-station signs, hardware-store yardsticks, and empty barrels labeled “Toxic Waste,” the latter with an eye to the future when it could be profitable to own a patch of condemned land (don’t ask—it eventually makes sense and comes full circle for the scheming parent).  Mendal grudgingly admits his father is “maybe the only man in all of Forty-Five with the ability to look past tomorrow.”  On the other hand, he is the kind of father who will remove the muffler from his son’s baby-blue Ford Galaxie so he can keep track of said son’s whereabouts according to thundering rumble of the engine as he cruises around town.

Mr. Dawes also seizes every opportunity to teach Mendal a series of Life Lessons:
My father, in an attempt to make me know that people lived differently than we did, went out of his way to find albinos, one-armed men, burn victims, waterheads, and vegetarians for me to meet. He drove me all the way over to Augusta, Georgia, the previous summer to shake hands with Siamese twins joined at the chest.

Mendal has a reputation around school “for being some kind of loner hermit freak” due in large part to his father’s eccentricities.  In one of the funnier episodes (“Asphalt’s Better Than Cinder”), Mendal’s father forces him to befriend Bennie Frewer, another school pariah rumored to have head lice.  When Mendal complains about having the lice-ridden boy come for a sleepover, his father says,
“Look, son. There are times in life when you have to do some things for other people. That’s just the end of that.” When my father said, “That’s just the end of that,” it meant that the monologue might go on for half a day. “I’ve been trying to teach you that there are other people from other stations in life. Evidently you’re not getting it. Get it, boy. What I’m trying to teach you is that there are some people out here in the world that ain’t got it as good as you. There’re some people, you know?” My father went into the kitchen and picked up a yardstick from Snead’s Builder Supply, which he’d used to hit me on the hamstrings before. He slicked his black, black hair back, then wiped the Brylcreem off on his blue work pants. “Goddamn, sometimes you sear my sack.”

As it turns out, head lice is the least of Mendal’s worries when Bennie Frewer comes to stay the night.  But that’s all I’ll say about that so as not to spoil story for you.

What Mendal wants more than anything (except, perhaps, to have his mother returned to him) is to escape from Forty-Five, “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’”  It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn't take a Dr. Scholl's insert to keep one’s soles dry.”  In the story “No Fear of God or Hell,” Mendal vows: “If we’d’ve had a travel agent in town, I would’ve booked a plane to Mississippi, or any of those other states where I could get lynched quickly and without notice—just so I could flat-out die without much fanfare.”  Every boy trapped in a small town believes he is not living in the real world, a place of normality that exists somewhere beyond the town limits and is surely filled with people completely devoid of eccentricities.  You know, people like you and me.  But, as in the best of literature like Singleton’s (and Nordan’s and T. R. Pearson’s and Eudora Welty’s and Flannery O’Connor’s), it is the weird, the off-beat, and the off-kilter which make the worlds of these stories more “real” than reality.  Through hyperbole, we approach the truth; through the weird, we find the sane; and through humor, we get down to the serious business of understanding life.

In answer to the question posed by the book’s title, why do dogs chase cars?  One character tells us: “They can't form a noose without opposable thumbs.  They don't know how to turn on the gas in the kitchen.  It's impossible for them to slit their wrists.  They don't have trigger fingers.”  But, really, it boils down to one thing: like Mendal, those dogs just want to get out of town.  Lucky for us, they never make it very far.

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