In a literary landscape that still privileges the rather grandiose notion of the Great American Novel, to describe a piece of writing as a sketch or a vignette or a slice of life can come across as damning with faint praise. But as fans of flash fiction — short-short stories usually defined as 1,000 or fewer words — have long appreciated, compression packs a pithy punch.
One of the earliest contemporary practitioners of this flash fiction form, Jim Heynen, returns in his latest book, "The Youngest Boy," with a slim but spirited set of glimpses of agricultural life in America in the 1950s. In his preface, David Pichaske writes, "The stories are short, what James Thurber once called 'fables for our times,' and what I once called 'Parables of Innocence and Experience.' "
A St. Paul resident and the author of numerous collections of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, Heynen is most renowned for his short-short stories about "the boys," a set of unnamed farm kids who first appeared in his 1979 book "The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap." These young men's experiences parallel his own coming-of-age on a farm in northwest Iowa. As his author bio charmingly explains, not only have these stories been featured on NPR's "All Things Considered," but they were also taken on tape into outer space by Minnesota astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson as bedtime listening on his final mission.
This, Heynen's latest book, focuses as its title suggests on the youngest of his archetypal figures of rural boyhood, a shapeshifting and mercurial personage who is by turns frolicsome and introspective, mischievous and vulnerable. Endlessly attentive to the quiet mysteries of crops and livestock, as well as to camaraderie with the land and quarrels with "noisy grown-ups," the youngest boy inhabits a world where "dehorning and castrating" take place next to lilac trees and "strawbale tunnels."
Heynen's longtime collaborator, self-taught artist Tom Pohrt, provides the collection's deceptively simple illustrations. Pohrt's shaggy precision lends itself well to the depiction of a realm so teeming with wild and domestic beasts, "there were eyes everywhere!"
The publisher, Holy Cow! Press, has deep Midwestern roots, as well. Founded in Duluth in 1977, it publishes several books annually in all genres. Its mission has been in part to showcase the American Midwest, a territory often overlooked even by other indie publishers, as founder and publisher Jim Perlman has pointed out.
That down-to-earth, personal, hands-on feeling permeates Heynen's collection. Yet this is not a book of glossed over "sentimental realism," but rather, as Heynen himself puts it, the "clear and even harsh acceptance of the earth and animal presence in our historical and contemporary lives."
The youngest boy likes few things better than to play with "a handful of wooden matches." Hybrid and full of heart, Heynen's own bright flashes accrue into a nostalgic yet unsparing illumination of the past and its inhabitants.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
The Youngest Boy
By: Jim Heynen.
Publisher: Holy Cow Press, 128 pages, $16.95.