With "Ordinary Sins," Jim Heynen, best known for his tiny, plain-spoken stories about boys, returns to the short form — so decisively, in fact, that his fine 2012 novel, "The Fall of Alice K," merits not one mention in the publicity materials (including Heynen's biographical blurb) that accompanied the review copy. 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 teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.