The Funnies 

A sculptor gets sober; a senator goes waltzing.

Dateline: Ember Glow, a mound of raw granite in upstate South Carolina, which means it could just as easily be a half-buried asteroid in the middle of nowhere. But it's home to a talented sculptor named Harp Spillman, whose drinking runs to a quart of bourbon a day; Spillman's wife, Raylou, a ceramicist who makes a good living making "face jugs"; and a dozen snapping turtles, which Raylou recently rescued from the testing lab of an evil biotoxicologist.

Turtles saved from poisoning, it's time someone saved Spillman from the quarter-century he's spent perfectly soused. And what may be worse: He's in deep trouble with the state Republicans, because the lifelike heads of prominent party leaders, which Spillman sculpted out of ice for a fancy fund-raiser, melted down to the core by the end of the evening. So: Inside that icy blockhead known as Newt Gingrich — and thanks to Spillman's artistic skills (and leftist sympathies) — members of the Grand Old Party discovered the face of a real party animal: Koko (the gorilla).

But things are looking up for Spillman, because he's just gotten a major public-art commission from the city of Birmingham to build a dozen 12-foot angels out of rebar and hex nuts, and he's got 12 months to finish the job. Time enough to clean up his act if Spillman will agree to check into rehab and take some steps: the 12 Steps. So he does, and then he doesn't, because, in no time, Spillman's had it with both rehab and AA. But if it means keeping the commission (and holding onto Raylou), he'll go cold turkey. And that's with or without the help of a fellow alcoholic, who unsuccessfully performs a tracheotomy on himself, and with or without the help of a trio of misfits known as the Elbow Brethren, who couldn't lift a glass if they tried. (Why? Because a surgeon in Costa Rica pinned their elbow joints good and straight.)

And that's not all that's up at Ember Glow. The four anteaters that belong to Spillman's neighbor, Arthur, escape their pens, and Arthur's mentally retarded sister, Arthette, goes and dies. Spillman's father returns, after taking up with the wife of an Irish Traveler decades ago. And Spillman's mother suddenly materializes from sunny Florida, and to no one's surprise, she's way off her rocker.

Not Spillman. He may be a recovering booze hound, but his existential outlook has always been in the right place: somewhere between being, nothingness, and nausea. His clear-headed conclusion — after a year of sobriety and after seeing those angels of his in shambles but his marriage intact and Sartre by his side:

"I figured out that nothing made sense, nothing mattered, and that spending a fucking lifetime trying to figure out causes, effects, and that which probably occurred through pure-tee chance meant spending a fucking lifetime confused and somewhat pessimistic about the entire ordeal."

That, then, is Harp Spillman, sober at last. It's also George Singleton, author, writing in his latest comic novel, Work Shirts for Madmen (Harcourt), and it's no ordeal. It's Singleton, again, in unsunny but very high spirits.

George Singleton will be signing Work Shirts for Madmen at Square Books in Oxford on Wednesday, September 19th, at

5 p.m. and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on Saturday, September 22nd, at 1 p.m.

Tennessee Waltz, Operation Main Street Sweeper, and a mayor on the lookout for "snakes in the grass" — etc., etc., and etc.

If the scandal sheet that is Memphis politics has you down and lying low, you've got company: Toad Frogster (aka cartoonist Tom Foster), who offers a "frog's-eye view" of public corruption in the Bluff City in his latest, self-published comic book, The Waltzing Senator.

Foster's been busy this year with regular shows of his artwork, but in April he was extra busy — on the scene and literally on hand, sketching and quoting from Edmund Ford's courtroom drama in downtown Memphis. And he's been on the bus too (MATA's #2 bus) heading to and from court, sketching and quoting from his fellow riders. But he's had his eye east of downtown as well: from that Midtowner's national-news-making technicolor-mohawk mug shot, to the trials of Save Libertyland, to the trial of Mary Winkler, to the open-and-shut case that was Virginia Tech.

What's next for Foster? Networx? That could easily be the subject of volume three of "Strawberry Funnies." In the meantime, he'll be signing The Waltzing Senator, volume two of that series, at Burke's Book Store (936 S. Cooper) on Thursday, September 13th, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

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