"ASIDES: OCCASIONAL ESSAYS ON DOGS, FOOD, RESTAURANTS, BARS, HANGOVERS, JOBS, MUSIC, FAMILY TREES, ROBBERY, RELATIONSHIPS, BEING BROUGHT UP QUESTIONABLY, ET CETERA" by George Singleton (EastOver Press, 196 pages, $20).
In the introduction to his latest book, an essay collection titled "Asides," George Singleton writes, "There happen to be some great essayists. I don't count myself in this group." I think most readers who dive into this lovely slim book full of dogs, writing advice and summer jobs will disagree.
"Asides," following hard on the heels of Singleton's August 2023 story collection, "The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs," is the author's first full-length collection of essays. Those familiar with Singleton's fiction — his voice, his humor, his way with how to just plain tell a good story — will find the same treasures in "Asides."
As mentioned, dogs are a popular topic in these pages. In "Seven Protective Popeyes," we meet Singleton's "odd assortment of ex-strays." The essay begins with the author, concerned about an E. coli outbreak and not being able to buy enough spinach, taking matters into his own hands by constructing a garden:
"Spinach seeds cost only ninety-five cents an ounce, as it turned out, and there were about a million seeds in an ounce. I planted eight rows. Off to the side I planted a dozen broccoli plants, just in case the terrorists struck that lovely plant next. I watered every morning and tried not to pay attention to my dogs sitting in a row behind me, staring. I hope he's planting something that attracts moles, voles and shrews that we can dig up and roll on, I could almost read on Maggie's and Hershey's faces. Charlie, Marty, and Stella looked as if they wanted Brussels sprouts, of all things, seeing as they would fit their smaller mouths as compared to tomato/tennis balls. Nick and Dooley, kind-of-black Lab and kind-of-Pointer, respectively, wanted something to attract more slow-moving doves."
By the essay's end, we see just how this garden does with the canine overseers.
"Back From the Grave" is another winning dog essay, this one largely a love story about Singleton's Dooley. It's a tender piece, full of heart, as we see the author and his wife concerned about Dooley's sudden weakening health. When a towel makes an appearance, I let out a sigh of relief — and a chuckle.
Among the longest pieces in "Asides" is "How To Write Stories, Lose Weight, Clean Up the Environment and Make $1,000,000," a hilarious set of instructions for aspiring writers that involves word counts, picking up aluminum cans, walking, picking up more cans, rewriting and picking up even more cans. "This plan," Singleton writes, "will work if and only if the writer-to-be is, say, twenty-five years old and intends to live another fifty years. ... Maybe it'll give you the incentive to live past ninety." The essay is such a clever read, full of a brand of truth and humor that we have come to expect from Singleton.
The collection offers numerous honest glimpses into Singleton's life. In "My Writing Mentor," we learn about Henry Gibson and Singleton's admiration for him and the comic genre. The ending offers this line: "So this is my nod toward people who understood not everyone needs to be immersed in, say, Dostoyevsky." "I Thank the Church for Teaching Me How To Lie" touches on Singleton's childhood experience with racism in a church in South Carolina. "Gar" amusingly reflects on lessons learned on a college summer break.
Throughout "Asides," the tone doesn't shift too abruptly, and the good-heartedness never leaves. This is a collection that explores the real beauty of a simple, funny and thoughtful life. George Singleton's stories remind me of home. Whether he's working in fiction or essays, I just want to take a break and listen.
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.