The Lighter Side of Sobriety

When whiskey-soaked South Carolina fine-art-metal-sculptor turned Ice-o-Thermal employee Harp Spillman wakes up one morning after a decades-long bender, he doesn't just have a tenuous hold on his job and marriage, like any old alcoholic. He also has a gang of angry Republican Party men on his tail, a pool dug into his backyard to house 12 snapping turtles liberated from a medical testing lab, and a baffling, nearing deadline to weld 12 12-foot-high angels for the city of Birmingham for a commission that Harp can't recall applying for. In other words, the protagonist of George Singleton's new novel, "Workshirts for Madmen," is in a bit of a mess and in dire need of a sober perspective. But in this recovery tale of absurd sorts, sobriety and clarity are hard things to come by.

If there is a fiction genre blending the riotous, bleary-eyed excess and absurdity of gonzo journalism with the rather earnest, sensitivity of a John Irving hero—who always does right by his wife in the end—"Workshirts" belongs to it. This is not the literature of drying out, or staying wet, that we know from grand literary drunks like Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski. There is none of the degradation, anger, and despair—none of the pity or revulsion that mark other entries in the well-stocked canon of booze lit. Harp Spillman doesn't have demons; he has madcap consequences.

For example, see the episode that Singleton offers as Harp's darkest moment, the one that bubbles up out of Harp's blacked-out memory, but that reads less as shame than as the amusing victory of the underdog over the establishment. After Harp's drinking got in the way of his serious art—his trademark welded nuts-and-bolts sculptures, which decorate the municipal property of Georgia and the Carolinas—he fell to carving ice sculptures for posh parties. One job was dressing up a Republican Party banquet with ice busts of the great conservative statesmen of the South. Harp, wearing what seems like the author's hat as cantankerous liberal in GOP country, double-casts the ice busts to melt down to the Republican greats' "true selves": Jesse Helms puddles down to reveal a grand wizard; a hydra-headed bust of Presidents Reagan and the two Bushes melt into the Three Stooges; Charlton Heston, the devil. For this, Harp is fielding threatening calls from GOP henchmen, but apart from the intimidation, it's hard for readers to buy this as his rock-bottom moment, the disgrace that finally sets him on his path to sobriety, rather than a prank that secretly pleases him.

Likewise, in his recovery, Harp doesn't have an overabundance of guilt, but rather mysteries, adventures, bizarre antagonists and strange new friends who appear to serve as round-the-clock sponsors. Perhaps "sponsors" is the wrong word. At the behest of his long-suffering wife, Raylou, a talented potter who shelved her own career to accommodate Harp's drinking, Harp drives down his granite mountain to attend a few sessions of AA-like 12-step meetings. But as combination village atheist and nay-saying crank, Harp is allergic to his Higher Power, and disdainful of all 12-step truisms: that alcoholics are powerless to stop their own drinking; that he "can't do it alone."

But before Harp can test his self-sufficiency in recovery, he meets a bumbling new friend and employee, Bayward—or Wayward, as his Goodwill work shirt identifies him—who in turn introduces Harp to a trio of recovering alcoholics, the Elbow Boys. The Elbow Boys also shun 12-step slogans and claim to deny the notion of powerlessness, but they see the problem of quitting in physical terms: they fuse their own arms straight so as not to be able to take a drink.

But even as Harp scorns the Elbow Boys' grotesque solution to the problem of their own free will, he is becoming ever more aware—as the haze of 20 years of hard drinking slowly lifts—that he is not, in fact, going it alone. Bayward and the Elbow Boys all but move in to keep watch on Harp's sobriety, with Raylou's ready approval. His estranged alcoholic father shows up to demand recognition. And his bitter, suspicious mother, recently graduated from a correspondence course in filmmaking, appears to shoot a documentary on whether Harp is turning out to be a philandering drunk like his dad. And throughout, like a numerological incantation, the 12-stepping programs Harp has fled force their way back into his life: 12 turtles stolen from bio-toxicology experiments; 12 12-foot-high hex-nut angels to stand guard on a Birmingham roadway and grant travelers safe passage; 12 steps away from the bar and back to the car that will take him home.

The title of "Workshirts for Madmen" is taken from the pile of Goodwill and Dollar Store shirts that Harp's neighbor uses to clothe his mentally ill sister, and that nearly half the characters end up wearing—misidentifying all of them as "Wayward" or simply "XX," as though these were stage names for the cast of sponsors holding Harp's hand through his recovery. Though there's little heavy emotional punch to the trauma of getting sober, and the philosophical underpinning of the story (the book jacket asks, "Is it true there's no free will?") seems unresolved, it's a fun read on a normally bleak subject. And perhaps that's what's intended: recovery, in the best of all possible worlds, as an adventure to be undertaken, rather than a trial to be withstood.