As you advance through "The Proper Words for Sin," a collection of 11 stories from Gary Fincke, you know you're in the hands of a pro.
For starters, Fincke writes a strong hook. Consider the first sentence of "The Promises of Labels," a story about a man banned from his favorite bar: "Six weeks isn't long unless every one of those forty-two days is a space between you and what you love most, and for Rick Morton, it was the Westberg Hotel, from which he'd been banished for fighting."
You prefer brevity? This one's for you: "My son loves to watch me spray the DDT." That line opens the book's title story, which is among its best.
Fincke also knows how to conjure a compelling scenario. Consider the situation of retiree Harold Plezik, narrator of "Somebody Somewhere Else." Harold lives in a Pennsylvania town sitting on a long-smoldering underground coal fire. It's nearly a ghost town, but he's staying.
Walking near some woods, Harold spots a couple and assumes they seek a secluded spot for an afternoon tryst. The man notices Harold and changes direction, pulling his partner by her hand. From Harold: "I could see it wasn't a thin woman at all, but a girl of maybe nine or ten, not anybody who belonged where he looked to be leading her." Harold watches the pair leave, then spends troubled days wishing he had intervened and waiting for inevitable news of a missing child.
The author of 24 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Fincke builds his stories around dialogue, and he occasionally stumbles. Some characters speak in a way that is groan-inducing in its folksiness. That's the case in "All the Big Things," which presents a military wife whose husband goes to Afghanistan and leaves her with his banality-spewing, ever-present mother. It's a tough slog — not quite a quagmire — but Fincke is usually on better footing.
Stories in "The Proper Words for Sin" focus on struggle and pleasure in the lives of everyday people, while often coinciding with a significant moment in history — the Kennedy assassination, Three Mile Island, the Challenger disaster, the hostage crisis in Iran and so on.
Fincke also manages to cook up a bleakly funny story depicting America's troubled relationship with food. The main character in "You Can Look This Up" is a 57-year-old man whose father's heart gave out early and whose thirty-something son is training to be a competitive eater.
The man, a community college instructor, can't help worrying as he picks through his salad for pieces of chicken; at the county fair, where his son takes fourth in a doughnut-eating contest, he lusts after grease and meat. "It was like seeing the girls in his classes," Fincke writes. "Even the ordinary looking ones, at eighteen or nineteen, made him ache with desire."
Nick Healy is the author of "It Takes You Over," a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. He lives in Mankato.