Star Tribune, Nov. 1, 2014
With “Ordinary Sins,” Jim Heynen, best known for his tiny, plain-spoken stories about boys, returns to the short form — This return, as the book’s subtitle and an author’s note inform us, is by way of Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and polymath of the 4th century B.C., whose Characters Heynen cites as a model of sorts.
Between Characters and the character sketches that make up “Ordinary Sins,” there is, however, a critical difference. From Theophrastus we get, for instance, the Dissembler, the Coward and the Tactless Man — in other words, character types. In “Ordinary Sins” we encounter not types, but characters: “The Hardware Store Man,” “The Boy Who Couldn’t Conform” and “The Poor Rich Young Man.” In some cases, these brief profiles call to mind Aesop’s fables. The characters of “Be Careful What You Wish For” face the stark consequences of making a reluctant neighbor clear the way for electricity. “The Dieter,” dropping pounds in his pursuit of the ideal woman, frightens her off with his gauntness. (“I hate men who have emaciated themselves with a lifetime of bad choices!”)
In others — for instance, the whimsical “The Girl and the Cherry Tree,” which gives new meaning to having something coming out of one’s ears — the ghost of Shel Silverstein seems to hover. Even the gnomic fiction of Lydia Davis might be a touchstone.
What distinguishes these stories, finally, is Heynen’s interest in what someone is as opposed to what he does. However each might identify its character as “The Eulogist” or “The Good Host,” “The Dieter” or “The Escapee,” these are still stories, occasionally with the mechanics of tragedy in miniature, as a character’s weakness or flaw becomes his (or her) destiny. The man “Who Wanted to Know One Thing Well” must in the end face his utter lack of self-knowledge. “The Checkout Clerk,” a teenager, becomes the cheery mask she has adopted for work. The man “Who Lived in a Separate Reality,” defined by small, seemingly insignificant rebellions (“More than once he ignored his dentist’s reminder that it had been six months since he last had his teeth cleaned, and then — when he finally got to the dentist — with equal defiance, he lied about how often he flossed”), becomes stuck in his distorted version of “normal.”
What’s funny, in these sometimes silly, sometimes sweet, and sometimes chilling little stories, is how rarely — if ever — Heynen’s characters are actually types, no matter what their titles suggest. They stand in quiet testimony to their author’s gift for finding the singular character in what each individual does, which he captures simply in his own singular, characteristic, not-so-simple terms.
-- Ellen Akins
Nov 11, 2014
A collection of very short pieces—some less than one page, none longer than two—that find inspiration in character sketches written by the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus.
Heynen (The One-room Schoolhouse: Stories About the Boys, 1993, etc.) suggests in his introduction that the “brief verbal snapshots” of his classic model provided the genesis of this collection; the title and the gentle humor throughout attest to his own generosity of spirit. Only one character has a name—the protagonist of the final story, “John Doe” (and he moves through pseudonyms in a “pursuit of anonymity” that draws more unwanted attention to him). Every other protagonist (and the majority of these stories have only one character) is an Everyman or -woman characterized by some eccentricity that may seem odd but isn’t evil and makes for some sort of common bond with the rest of the human menagerie. The author suggests that he might even be “mocking himself” in some of these pieces, “several of which are thinly disguised self-portraits.” You might not want to invite him home if he’s the hero of “Keeping One’s Secret,” whose “secret was that he urinated wherever he pleased.” Many of the stories, like that one, are essentially character description without the sort of chronological progression that could be termed plot, but those with some action read more like parables or fables. “The Girl and the Cherry Tree” is about a girl who's warned that “if you don’t stop eating so many cherries, cherries will start growing out of your ears.” And they do! As a pre-emptive strike, “The Book Reviewer” suggests the sort of disdain that the author of such a collection might feel toward those who will try to categorize it, concluding that it’s “all a matter of taste, anyhow.”
Perhaps “flash fiction” is the name for these stories, but Heynen has been writing them since before that term came into vogue.
The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, a student of Plato and Aristotle, wrote influential texts on science, ethics and human nature. His book Characters--a compilation of 30 "moral types" outlined through short literary descriptions--is the inspiration for Jim Heynen's story collection Ordinary Sins.
In more than 40 character snapshots supplemented with illustrations by Michigan artist Tom Pohrt, Heynen describes a man who talks nonstop to his bees, a girl who sprouts cherries from her ears, a well-spoken man who refuses to let people see him eat and someone who is such a good eulogist that strangers ask him to speak at funerals. The result is an archive of quotidian quirks--delightfully surreal in some cases, perfectly mundane in others.
At times, Ordinary Sins is reminiscent of certain Beatles' songs, such as "Eleanor Rigby" or "Mean Mr. Mustard," which illustrate characters both cartoonish and familiar. They contain a sort of winking, sidelong humor, as though the reader and narrator are enjoying an odd moment together.
There is even a profile of a critic ("The Book Reviewer") who finally writes her own book (a "strange and quirky collection of short prose pieces") and imagines what other reviewers will say. Though she hopes they label it "flash fiction," she thinks, "If anyone labeled them 'snippets' or 'vignettes' she would throw an epic tantrum."
In the book's introduction, Heynen discloses that several of the characters are thinly veiled self-portraits, adding, "You are welcome to find Waldo, if you can."
Discover: A collection of quirky short prose and character sketches modeled after the work of Greek philosopher Theophrastus.
-- Annie Atherton
STUFF IN THE BASEMENT
February 10, 2015
Hoarders is, at least for me, a reality show that smarts. After all, I'm in it. Not me exactly, but I can't help but recognize that more than just the outline of something similarly psychopathic abides in my soul too. There but for the grace of God and all that.
Or how about this? You walk down a midway and stumble on an artist doing quick caricatures. You pose, and hefty Magic Markers fly around freezer paper. A crowd gathers, judging the likeness as the image appears. Ten minutes pass, the artist rips off the portrait, and you see a chin three times bigger than you've ever imagined, or a pear for a nose, maybe two bulbous eyes.
It's exaggeration, but you can't help but smile because, dang it!--it's you.
The gang of eccentrics that people Jim Heynen's latest book, Ordinary Sins: After Theofrastus, is a collection of midway portraits of men and women, many of whom deserve their own reality shows, most of whom we recognize not because they are strange--they often are--but because, as the title suggests, they are, well, ordinary, just exceedingly so. They're not us, but they're not all that distanced.
Like "The Grim Reaper." "When others chuckled, he sneered. If someone laughed at a joke, he stared at them as if they'd passed gas on an elevator." He's Heynen's version of Young Goodman Brown, which is why Heynen says people had no trouble giving him his nickname. I know people just like him. They exist and they exist within me too.
Wonderful characters too have a place on stage, like the woman who lives "The Wondrous Quiet Life," visiting animal shelters and libraries. "In this woman's life, there were more books than traffic lights, more cars than cell phones, more vegetables than credit cards."
She is, bless her soul, sanctified.
Ordinary Sins is full of caricatures you can't help but smile to meet because you know them, both in life and in yourself.
Sometimes magical things happen in Heynen's little sketches. When a bar owner decided to create a "Sad Hour" as a way of getting rid of customers more quickly after Happy Hour, the move surprisingly caught on, despite the fact that he deliberately hiked the prices for drinks. Those who purposely arrived for "Sad Hour" sat quietly alone and seemed to fade away into nothing, "looking more like hats and coats draped over counters and tables than they did like people."
So the bartender let them know it was time, turned up the volume on the juke box, flipped on the lights, and lifted his arms "the way a minister might gesture for a congregation to rise." All do. Life returns. "Calmly, they walked out onto the noisy streets, almost smiling." Something magic sometimes happens.
The namelessness of the characters increases the sense of parable in these poetic portraits. "The Love Addicts" are almost shockingly virtuous: "To each other's eyes, they were bright roses in a dense forest." Even their lust is pure:
They are there own aphrodisiac, smooth and moist and just short of violent. But in the delirium of their readiness, they are not helpless servants of lust. They are not desperate pilgrims on a treacherous frontier. Their marsh of passion does not foreshadow the ashy pyre. This is their verdant kingdom, and they are the king and queen.
Heynen says he wants to channel Theophrastus in this scrapbook of characters, an ancient Greek whose similar character portraits he claims enchanted him way back in high school. While that may be true, the form these character glimpses assume is nothing new to Jim Heynen. Those of us who've been reading him for years will recognize the genre from The Man Who Wore Cigars in His Cap (1979) and You Know What Is Right (1985) and then the masterful The One-Room Schoolhouse (1993).
He's not departed from text with Ordinary Sins. He's doing what he's always done so well--creating miniatures whose sometimes astonishing heft make them feel like parable if they wouldn't be so charmingly mysterious. One of his blurb-ers calls it "serious fun."
What separates this new collection from The Man Who Wore Cigars in His Cap is basically setting. Let me be inexcusably provincial here, but I miss the country, the sense of Heynen's own northwest Iowa home that was frequented the old tales. "The boys," whose misadventures are the stuff of the earlier collections, weren't just any kids; they were rural, they were upper Midwesterners, and, at times, they were rather delightfully Dutch Calvinist kids, as Heynen was, and, well, is.
While a few of the sketches go back to the Heynen farm and homestead, Ordinary Sins reaches beyond geography, or attempts to. His characters' namelessness is most often matched with a placelessness that creates a warm and loving kind of universal sensibility present in the earlier volumes but not as deliberately created.
As a Dutch Calvinist myself, living in Heynen's own boyhood haunts, I'll admit it--I miss ye olde regionalism.
But I love the character of the characters, despite their being, well, diaspora. In inching away from his roots, he may well have given the portraits a wider berth.
That doesn't mean that Jim Heynen is not still one of the boys.
"I'd like to think that Theophrastus was gently mocking himself in some of his portrayals," he says in the preface. Then this darling confession: "I certainly am in Ordinary Sins, several of which are thinly disguised self-portraits." Then he starts a game: "You are welcome to find Waldo, if you can."
I like that. But then, I like Ordinary Sins.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:06 AM
-- James Schaap