Stray Decorum, by George Singleton. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, 2012. 220 pages. $15.95, paper.
A man with more education than he initially seems to have, who has flirted with academia and/or the arts. A woman who is wrong for him, and probably at least a little crazy. A stranger or near-stranger, maybe a little bit of a con-man, and most certainly a liar. A dog that is ultimately more worthy of the man’s love than any of the other people in the man’s life. A dog that is the only creature the man can truly love, which is good, because the man is the only person able and willing to offer the dog that love. Mostly because loving the dog equates to loving himself.
This is George Singleton’s collection of short stories, Stray Decorum. Sometimes the stories offer slightly different permutations on this formula, but the elements remain the same throughout (the most notable variance is the “metaphorical dog,” in which no dog is physically present but dogs are still discussed by the characters). Which is not to say that I was even remotely bored, because that would suggest that Singleton has approached this formula unconsciously, and allows it to get stale. In fact, Singleton is an excellent and conscientious craftsman. These stories are built so solidly I imagine one could balance a house on them, or at least reinforce the foundation, and the humor is—for the most part—subtle and nuanced and relentlessly unsettling in a way that keeps the stories fresh.
“The First to Look Away,” for example, is the story of the son of a man who tricks the boy’s fifth-grade class into digging a moat around his house by telling them the property is a ruby-and-sapphire farm and inviting the kids on a field-trip where they can keep whatever they dig up. Of course, all they dig up are flat rocks and the father’s two dead childhood dogs. All the while the wry Ethiopian teacher, with real experience in mines and a strange sort world-weary superstition, and the boy’s husband-weary mother, offer contrasting compassionate and sarcastic commentary on the proceedings.
“A Man with My Number” tells the story of a man’s encounter with the con artist who’s stolen the address numbers off the narrator’s mailbox so he can sell them back. The narrator, who collects bolt-cutters and machetes in case his ex-wife who left him for being so trusting should ever return, so he can illustrate how he is no longer so trusting, winds up being taken even though he knows he’s dealing with a thief and a liar. Though, of course, his dogs trust the con-man, and in the end the con-man might be doing his victim a favor.
These are strange, funny stories that show a great deal of compassion for both victims and perpetrators, although crazy exes and their families are not well-used. The closest the book comes to a low point is when two couples try to share the page with equal emphasis, with the con-artist being a fifth and minor character, in “Durkheim Looking Down” (a story that seems inspired by that Carver piece that you’ll know if you know what I’m talking about when I talk about Carver) and the resultant hodgepodge of dysfunction begins to feel a bit slapstick. Too many quirks were being crammed into too small a space, and it cost the story in both depth and subtlety. It’s still a pretty funny story—I mean, one of the couples wears no-bark shock collars to bed.
The final story in the book, “Humans Being,” is a perfect distillation of the formula Singleton’s been working with all along. I won’t ruin any of it, suffice to say that it makes Stray Decorum feel like a project in variance instead of divergence—an effort to plumb the depths of a theme rather than showcase a breadth of ideas and worlds. You know what? It works for me.
If short-story collections are at their best when they’re more than a “best-of” compilation, more than a mix-tape of an author’s most recent publications, Singleton should be applauded for Stray Decorum. There’s an endearing obsessiveness at work here, a compulsive need to examine the many possible motivations and circumstances of a particular type of man. It’s appropriate that the river that runs through so many of these stories’ settings is “the Unknown Branch of the Saluda River,” as the difference between one man and the next is just some unknown branching in their paths somewhere in their pasts.
And it’s this digging down that makes Stray Decorum stand out. Singleton is undoubtedly an excellent craftsman. The first-person prose of the stories is tight and artful, balancing revelation and reticence just so, and always mindful of the character’s voice. Images and details flesh out the scenes, making the surreal situations into unavoidable realities. The dialogue works hard without seeming to, always characters just barely missing the mark on talking to each other, and always having more than just conversations, hinting at what else needs to be said, or needs not to be said, and sometimes offering bald truths that jump right out.
Janet Burroway would be proud.
But there are many talented writers offering many competent collections. This is a rich time for the short story, and it’s easy for a book to get lost amongst all the other impeccably-crafted offerings. Stray Decorum is a different beast because it is not a showcase collection, it is an author spiraling around an idea, or perhaps plunging into it, or digging it up, exposing all its edges. The collection is a moment as a whole; instead of a menagerie it’s a single, loyal dog, and that’s what makes Stray Decorum special.
Will Kaufman’s work has appeared most recently in 3:AM, Sundog Lit, Metazen, and SmokeLong Quarterly, with more coming soon from Bourbon Penn and Bartleby Snopes. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis, and an MFA from the University of Utah. You can find out too much here.