Cultural historians like Harvard emeritus David Herbert Donald have long fixed the beginning of the Southern literary renaissance at 1929, the year that saw publication of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel. They put the end somewhere between World War II and the publication, in 1960, of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Any Southern writer unlucky enough to tootle down the pike since then has been consigned to the status of strictly "regional" voice. Among current writers, only Charles Frazier seems to have found the national spotlight—and the bestselling status—once common to the best of the region.
Perhaps the reason for the relative obscurity of our contemporary novelists—like T.R. Pearson, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah and Clyde Edgerton—is that the works they produce are often so funny. It can be hard to take comedy seriously. But introduce the independent Southern character into a wireless, mediated, globally corporatized world, and comedy—usually of a very black nature—is the likely outcome. To be truly Southern in 21st century America is an absurd condition, inherently postmodern. No wonder our best novelists (with the possible exception of Frazier) refuse to produce the sort of weighty tomes that first brought the South to literary prominence. If you can't make sense of life, you can at least scratch your head and laugh at it.
Consider George Singleton's Work Shirts for Madmen. This is the second novel from a South Carolina writer best known for irreverent short fiction. (He has three previous collections and stories in Harper's, Playboy and countless literary journals.) The book's narrator is Harp Spillman, a once renowned sculptor who has drunk his career into oblivion. Unable to procure new commissions for the half-ton metal compositions that made him famous, he's been getting by with ice sculptures. As the book opens, even that career is threatened by the series Harp creates for a GOP fundraiser: Inside each bust of a prominent Southern Republican, he has placed a second, hidden sculpture. As the ice starts to melt during the televised event, Jesse Helms becomes a Grand Wizard, Strom Thurmond transforms into Mussolini, and so on. When a woman screams that Newt Gingrich has melted down to Koko the gorilla, Harp tries to explain that it was "supposed to be a Neanderthal man, that I would never insult Koko."
After the resulting mayhem, the owner of the ice-sculpture company—aided by Harp's long-suffering wife, Raylou—lures him into rehab with the promise of a serious new commission: twelve nuts-and-bolts angels for the city of Birmingham, Ala. But he has to stay sober long enough to deliver.
Just after his first session of rehab, Harp loses his medical insurance, and the ability to pay for treatment, through the machinations of an offended Republican identified only as "Karl." Luckily, the "elbow brethren," three recovering alcoholics Raylou may or may not be paying to keep watch over Harp's efforts at sobriety, step in to help. All three have had steel pins inserted in their elbows. They walk around in a Frankenstein stance, physically incapable of raising a bottle to their lips. One of them, an immigrant from Ghana who speaks only in exclamations, explains: "I came to America in order to catch the education! But instead of go to college, I drank!" Led by Harp's new art assistant Bayward (who wears an apt work shirt labeled "Wayward"), the elbow brethren soon become a fixture in the couple's lives.
Raylou, meanwhile, is an artist in her own right, specializing in "face jugs," comic portrayals of stereotyped toothless Southerners, sold at community art fairs. But she is dealing with wider concerns than her husband's alcohol addiction and the growing demand for her face jugs. She has just rescued (i.e., stolen) a truckload of snapping turtles from a research facility studying the effects of various industrial toxins on the animals. At Ember Glow, the desolate farm where he and Raylou live, Harp builds a pond for the turtles that becomes the hub around which the novel's action unfolds and revolves.
Two artists living in a wasteland guarded by dinosaurs and zombies, using their work to perpetuate the Yankee stereotype of Southerners—if that ain't a recipe for Southern postmodernism, then just throw out the cookbook. Such absurd—and yet dead-on accurate—characters populate virtually every page of Work Shirts for Madmen. Down the hill from Ember Glow lies the property of a neighbor known only as Mr. Poole, who might as well be called Mr. Snopes for all his Faulknerian redneck behavior. Such a character in the 21st century, living next door to two educated artists, highlights the clash of worlds that is arguably the essence of postmodernism.
While the comic images flash by with the speed and hilarity of YouTube clips, the end result is a prime example of what's so good about the current circle of Southern novelists. Just beneath the humor lies the struggle for individual value and identity—a struggle that is even more difficult in a globalized South than it was to the reconstructed South of a century ago. It takes a different sort of voice to sing its demise. George Singleton's drunken croon is so comically on target that the reader is left feeling like Harp Spillman, confronting the costs of his addiction: "Right away I knew that my best defense when confronted with life-changing situations occurred in the arena of self-deprecation, of the absurd. But I couldn't talk. Instead I hung my head down halfway to my lap and cried, cried, cried."
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