Everything I know about what is called the short short or flash fiction or whatever you want to call it, I learned first from reading a small red hardback with a yellow dust jacket I found at a used bookstore in Seattle in the early 1990s called You Know What is Right by Jim Heynen. It had been published years before, in 1985, by a small press named North Point Press that, in turn, was bought by Farrar Straus and Giroux in the nineties where the name continues to exist as an imprint.
Heynen writes mostly about farms and rural life in the midwest. I guess these are regional stories if you want to get right down to it. They are written in a kind of plain and laconic style that reminds of the kind of talk used by my relatives from Iowa. Compared to the nattering rush of my Kentucky relatives, my great aunts and uncles from Iowa are reticent, even mute. When they make an observation it cuts to the quick. They say what they mean. They don’t mess around with problems of context or irony. They have faith in language’s ability to describe what they see.
For some reason, regionalism has a bad name in the United States. In Ben Marcus’ introduction to David Ohle’s Motorman, he tries to put the term, experimental, into context. “Without [experimental] there is regionalism, or more simply crap.” For many critics and readers, poetry and stories concerned with the specific and made out of local materials represent the effluvia of small town bigotry, delusional screeds of the greatness of Topeka, Spokane, or San Pedro. I never bought this simple polarizing argument. I don’t see what the local and specific that is the regional, has to do with the crap or the lack of crap in literature.
Ohle’s work, or any experimental work for that matter, doesn’t appear fully-formed and without precedent or context. It just is, unless it is testing some convention. Ohle leans on our knowledge of detective stories, procedural manuals, and the old epic and picaresque narrative of the hero’s quest. His book is populated with stock characters modified to fit the story’s broken allegory. In this sense, it is deliberately denatured from the local and specific, but I would not say this is the defining characteristic of the work. I would argue, in fact, that most remixed detective stories are simply crap. Crappiness is hardly specific to regional literature. As great as Motorman is, it is great not merely because it is experimental.
Heynen leans on our knowledge of farms, small town life, and stingy old men. His stories are executed in the cadence of local speech. It is, by this measure, regional and conservative, rather than experimental. And yet this conservative approach has radical effects. Unlike a work like Motorman, which is largely unhinged from observable reality, You Know What is Right operates at the intersection of local speech, the physical world of barnyards, and the capacity of country boys to observer and articulate their experience. The book opens with a story about a boy who puts his eye up next to the eye of a pig while the pig is asleep. When the pig wakes it is surprised, but not startled. It is “more like the look of somebody up in the back seat of a car who doesn’t realize how far he’s (missing word) since he fell asleep. The look that says, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we’d gone this far, but okay.’”
Rarely do Heynen’s similes and stories stray from images and situations that are unfamiliar. It is the juxtaposition of the familiar, at least for someone who has ever lived in proximity to a farm that reveal a hidden world. Some boys fish in a pond left by a flood and catch a yellow dress. “It was yellow, with small red flowers.” They turn the dress into a girl, scratching a body in the dirt. “This is our yellow girl,” Heynen writes. The pronoun shifts to include not just the boys but the boys and anyone reading the story. And the dress, too gains a pronoun, moving from it (being a dress) to a she (being the yellow girl).
Each story executes a transformation. They occur in less than two pages or 500 words, and yet they are complete stories with beginnings and middle and ends. Unlike so many very short stories, Heynen’s stories are not crushed into sharp fragments. They seem almost leisurely, belying the great skill and literary cunning necessary to create such fully-formed narrative in such a brief space.
Heynen has continued to write and publish collections of these minute stories. In 1994, Vintage issued a collection, The One-Room Schoolhouse, which is still in print. But it is the actual rhythm of stories, and even the few duds in You Know What Is Right, the little red book with a yellow dust jacket, that makes for a peculiar perfection.
Rediscovered Reading is a regular series in which Matt Briggs reviews overlooked collections of short fiction. Matt is the author of Shoot the Buffalo and other books. He blogs at mattbriggs.wordpress.com.