(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 15, 2009)
“Still, there is one thing more I should like to put down before I drive on. The night is a vast place. It preexists us, and it will survive us easily. It will survive every fire. There are people in each night who drive directly into their dreams, like ancient heroes; and there is something endless in that, deathless, even—far from frightening anymore. That we might be given a chance to close every door, wipe clean every map, burn out every star but the few, the very few—perhaps even the one, and the night sky would become again a road. I’m not sure when I’ll have another opportunity to stop.”
Ira Sher’s novel Singer is a tale of friendship and arson set in the 1980s against the backdrop of the history of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. For anyone who doesn’t know (and I didn’t before I picked up this engaging novel), Isaac Singer, in addition to founding the Singer Sewing Machine Company, took to the stage upon occasion, was a notorious world-class bigamist and fathered an unsettling number of children. Author Sher weaves snippets of history about Singer and the sewing machine company while exploring the strange relationship between his narrator, wealthy art dealer Milton Menger and sewing machine salesman Charles Trembleman.
When the novel begins, Milton gets a late night, unexpected phone call from old friend, salesman Charles Trembleman. Milton hasn’t heard from Charles in years, so he’s a little surprised that Charles has turned to him, of all people for help. Charles, it seems, has been badly burned in a motel fire, and his hands are damaged and wrapped in bandages. In spite of his injuries, Charles is intent on continuing his job as a sales rep for the Singer Sewing Machine Company and he needs a driver to take him on his sales route.
Milton, who’s going through the pain of a dying marriage, agrees to be Charles’s chauffeur. And while he thinks the request is a little odd, part of him is flattered that Charles considers him reliable enough to ask, but part of him wonders if Charles selected him because as a wealthy man he doesn’t have anything else to do. Milton decides “it is no small thing to be chosen from among a man’s many friends to aid him in his time of need.”
Milton flies to Memphis, and finds Charles immobile in a “cinder-block infirmary…hands bandaged, wearing one of his late-model cotton suits and resembling a colonial governor under benevolent house arrest.” The two men then continue on Charles’s sale route with Milton driving his friend’s 1979 Impala to various locations across the South. As they drive to their destinations--showrooms and shops--Charles passes the time by regaling Milton with stories about the sewing machine company and about its colorful, larger-than-life founder, Isaac Singer. And Milton finds his mind occasionally wandering back to thoughts of his wife Caroline and another friend Harvey Partner.
When Milton first reconnects with Charles, he hardly recognizes his old friend. This could be due, in part, to Charles’s horrible injuries, but somehow the change in Charles goes much deeper than that. Charles used to be an extremely promising young artist, but all that now seems to be gone--or at least buried--by his devotion and near-obsession with the Singer Sewing Machine Company. This obsession with the Singer Company seems contagious as even Milton categorizes people as “sewers” or "non-sewers.”
As the two men begin their odyssey through the South, "things" begin to go wrong, and in the wake of these disasters--a hit-and-run accident and a string of motel fires, the relationship between the two travelers becomes increasingly complex. Soon Milton realizes that a beautiful, mysterious woman is following them. Is she a rival salesperson or is there something more sinister afoot?
Singer starts slowly but then before too many pages it becomes clear that something about the situation and about the relationship between these two men is a little strange. As the journey continues, strange morphs into bizarre, and yet it’s still deliciously unclear whether these two characters are just peculiar or downright deranged. As events pile on and a string of fires seems to occur rather too coincidentally along the route, just who is at the root of these disasters is the meat of this novel--part road trip--part buddy tale blended with just a twist of Southern Gothic.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Daily Gazette article on Ira Sher
- MostlyFiction.com review of Gentlemen of Space
- Washington Post review of Singer
- SF Gate review of Singer
- San Francisco Chronicle review of Singer
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About the Author:
Ira Sher's short fiction has been published in the Chicago Review and The Gettysburg Review, and broadcast on This American Life. He has been a finalist for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories.
Sher loves to write but makes his living as a Web developer, primarily for not-for-profit companies like small literary magazines and small literary presses.
He is married to Rebecca Wolff. They and their son live in Athens, New York. Ira's next book is a collarboration with Rebecca.