Nothing to Say (But a Lot to Show): George Singleton’s Asides, Reviewed by Stephen Hundley

The writings collected in renowned short story writer and novelist, George Singleton’s debut book of essays are well described by author Abigail Thomas, whose cover blurb reads “the next best thing to George in the flesh.” Singleton’s prose is embodied, irreverent, alive:

Listen, I had an aunt who gave birth to a child out of wedlock, married another man soon thereafter, and—although everyone on my mother’s side of the family knew this story—no one ever told my cousin Jim. I happened to find Jim’s birth certificate, in a safe, back when I was in college. “Father Unknown” was clearly typed out. My cousin Jim only figured it out at his father’s funeral, when some well-meaning mourner got up to tell a story about my Uncle Alex, and somehow let it slip that he was the best father ever, even though...

The book’s full title is Asides: Occasional Essays on Dogs, Food, Restaurants, Bars, Hangovers, Jobs, Music, Family Trees, Robbery, Relationships, Being Brought Up Questionably, Et Cetera. What the title won’t prime the reader for—but what one should know—is that these essays bring the reader into the isolation of the writer’s study, the mysteries of the garden, the noises of the woods, and otherwise situate the reader on George Singleton’s shoulder as he navigates the past and present of a painfully, comically real American South. These essays immerse the reader into Singleton’s world—that is, our world.   

Fans of Singleton—who titled his debut novel, Novel—will not be surprised to find that the author opens this collection of essays, gathered from his forays into the form over the past thirty years, with comedic reticence. The Apology/Preface begins: “I hate writing essays.” ...  “I don’t have anything to say.” Singleton outlines all the topics that “great essayists” might take on, among them, some of the things that keep us awake at night—school shootings, politics, “questionable preachers... questionable police officers... questionable massage therapists.” Here is a little bit of Singleton’s genius: in ruling out all of these heady, sweaty topics, he addresses them by omission. In response to the unanswerable, he makes observations. He explores memory. He doubles down on what he knows—a writer’s life, his chosen homeplace, and a pack of ex-strays. 

Good-to-be strays thrown out in the middle of the country by impatient and/or unready dog owners invariably crawl on their bellies, eyes up and pleading. I’ve never lived with loving and judicious ex-strays that didn’t appear in my yard, then come to me as if mimicking a Parris-Island soldier-in-training, forced to crawl beneath razor wire. [...] All my ex-strays over the years [...] have been great dogs in their own ways, but they’ve never fully shaken the feral out of their coats.

In place of a head-first plunge into faux-sage didacticism, Singleton offers a South that stands in contrast to buzzwords and headlines and makes an impression on readers through unvarnished human experience. The self-deprecating, observant, straight-talking humor that enlivens Singleton’s fiction is the backbeat to a book of nonfiction that serves no epiphanies to its reader, but supplies them with enough scene and perspective to draw their own conclusions. 

The essays in Asides are short, most between four and nine pages. The collection moves easily through time with Singleton as its vessel and his essays as its guide. Readers follow the author from the 1970s, to the present day, and back again. A loose hold on time allows the book to follow ideas, as opposed to the chronological narrative of an autobiography. In “Fifth Cousins Twice Removed,” a mysterious historian dredges Singleton’s lineage for story ideas and sends the dirt to his employer. A few pages later, in “I Thank the Church for Teaching Me How to Lie,” we walk out of Sunday service with kid-George and his parents. Three pages after this scene, we’re in adult-George’s front yard, chasing squirrels with Mabel, the euphoric brindle-dog. Who do you come from, what is the balance of good and evil in your life, and where is “goodness” found anyway? 

With casual grace, Asides mediates large questions quietly across a fractured narrative of the past, as in “Chains,” when Singleton writes on his town’s 1970 integration and membership in his junior high school’s “Bi-racial Committee.”

I don’t remember the other White kids in this little club, but Jackie Sanders and Cheryl Puckett were on it. We sat in a room for two weeks. We talked about nothing. [...] We shrugged at each other. I’m sure some kind of seventh-grade philosophical views got aired on par with Rodney King’s ‘Can’t we all just get along?’  I remember only white palms and white soles, hair-stroking.

Singleton takes an oblique route to truth, but the result carries the nuance of understanding. We ride out the school closures and riots in a classroom, and 80 pages later we’re dropping off a sack of peppers and celebrating Chinese New Year (and small-town socialism?) with George and his wife in “A Fine Restaurant in Nowhere South Carolina, Run by a Man Named Xue.” 

Readers will lean in when Singleton purports to let out his secrets to prolific writing, as in “Where I Discovered Narrative Possibilities, Possibly.” The collection addresses the question, “Why (and how) does George write?” a dozen ways across a dozen essays, but the answers to these questions are playfully diffused, as are his tips. In “How to Write Stories, Lose Weight, Clean Up the Environment, and Make $1,000,000,” he notes that:

This plan will work if and only if the writer-to-be is, say, twenty-five years old and intends to live another fifty years. But it’s fun to play, even if you start at age thirty or forty. Maybe it’ll give you the incentive to live past ninety.” [...] “You’ll never understand the workings of interest rates, but over time—notice how you don’t have kids with which to bother, or a spouse, seeing as you’ve slightly focused on your work—your savings will grow and grow and grow.

Singleton relates to the reader using a variety of means: speaking in questions and promises through his titles, steering the whole by associative links, and taking breaks to clarify in his “asides.” The asides scattered throughout the essays emulate the way a story might be told on a porch: digging in, circling back, crossing borders. The strength of the aside as a dramatic technique—it’s ability to make the audience feel they are receiving a piece of the story that supersedes the primary narrative—is as effective in Singleton’s essays, where the insight they provide connects the essays to each other and to the version of the author that is constructed over the course of the book. 

Why does Singleton keep so many stray dogs? Well, to learn that, you’d have to read an aside in an essay about why he fears guns and another about why he doesn’t play chess, illustrating that the “why” of why we all are the way we are, if answered honestly, needs a story form that shuffles, sifts, and recycles memory to tell. 

In under 200-pages of sharp, grounded, laughing-out-loud prose broken into twenty-eight essays, Asides relates a life and a landscape under pressure. It is history, and it is now. Singleton’s longtime readers will recognize the voice and humor deployed in his fiction, but the places we encounter in these essays are not made up for laughs, but taken from reality, as George knows it, rendered with the familiarity with which one calls their own dog and shaded with the kind of truth that takes decades to recognize.


Stephen Hundley is the author of The Aliens Will Come to Georgia First (University of North Georgia Press, 2023) and Bomb Island (Hub City Press, 2024). His stories and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Cream City Review, Carve, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. Stephen serves as a fiction editor for Driftwood Press and book reviews editor for The Southeast Review. He holds an MA from Clemson, an MFA from the University of Mississippi, and is currently completing a PhD in English at Florida State University, where he teaches fiction and poetry and is writing a book about the feral horses of Cumberland Island.