When Saint Paul author Jim Heynen stopped writing about the three Iowa farm boys who populated hundreds of his short stories, it wasn’t so much that he had outgrown the youngsters. It was more that he had written all there was to write about them.

Those stories were published between 1979 and 2001 in four collections: The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap, You Know What Is Right, The One-Room Schoolhouse and The Boys’ House. Since then, Heynen has turned his attention to novels, poetry and other short fiction.

Jim Heynen
Saint Paul author Jim Heynen recalls his rural Iowa boyhood at a friend’s farm outside Afton. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Then one day, out of the bluest Iowa sky, a new boy emerged, and now he has a collection, too. The Youngest Boy will be introduced by Heynen and Holy Cow! Press publisher Jim Perlman in a virtual reading presented on Tuesday, April 13, by SubText Books.

“It was December 15, 2019,” when the youngest boy first appeared, Heynen said. “His stories started coming to me, and they just kept coming. I thought I was through with the boys, but I wasn’t. I started writing about this one, and when I was writing I really felt as if I was discovering a new character who was just hanging out there in the ozone waiting to be discovered.”

Now 80 and living in the Lowertown neighborhood, Heynen said this latest protagonist was not intended to be a younger sibling of the other boys. “I just saw them as a pod,” he said, “a cluster of boy energy, an odd mix of impulses, everything from the kind to the mischievous to the gratuitously cruel to the sweetly curious and inventive.”

“If the youngest boy were growing up today, I’m sure he would be much more restricted in his activities…. I think the assumption back then was that boys would naturally go astray for a while before growing up into conformity with the community and its standards of proper behavior.”

In his preface to The Youngest Boy, fellow Minnesota author David Pichaske writes, “Hynen is at heart a writer of place, in that for him place determines character and vision…. Being close to their place and time, Heynen’s boys are in touch with the physical world. They survive without toilet paper and are not tangled up in complex technologies…. Simplicity is truth. The youngest boy especially understands this. Yesterday’s lesson was suck it up and do the work…. Today’s lesson is we all need a dog.”

There are lessons or morals to his stories, Heynen said. As an example, he mentioned “Simonize.” This is a story about the youngest boy’s reaction to a man whom he and his family see waxing his car every Sunday rather than attending church. The grownups are critical, saying the man should “come to church and simonize his soul.” In the end, the boy is struck by the dirt clouding their own car. And when he later gives his dog a bath, the boy decides that is better “than sitting in church for an hour trying to stay awake.”

“There’s a sense of unexpected compassion for the underdog in a story like ‘The Salebarn,’” Heynen said. “That compassion for the underdog comes through in many of the stories. ‘Dehorning and Castrating’ and ‘Fat Boy’ are a couple of good examples.

“Now I’m going to stop,” Heynen said, “lest I discover that the theme of the whole book is a moralistic message of compassion for the vulnerable. Which would be pretty Biblical, I’m realizing. Which doesn’t bother me at all. I’d like to think the harsh Dutch Calvinism training of my youth has softened into a more generous acceptance of others, especially the more vulnerable and neglected among us.”

Stories are set around the time of Heynen’s youth

The stories are set around the time of Heynen’s youth. “I can’t imagine adults today would allow kids to be as unattended as the kids were in the youngest boy’s life,” he said. “There were many natural consequences then that taught kids what not to do. By the time I was 13, my body must have had at least a dozen very visible scars, ranging from big ones from barbed-wire fences to smaller ones for doing things like sticking my hand in places where it shouldn’t have gone, like into the nest of a brooding and defensive hen.”

Back then, “many antics, like tipping over or at least messing up a neighbor’s outhouse, may not have been punished by parents,” Heynen said. “But clever retaliations by neighbors might be the natural consequences of such antics. If the youngest boy were growing up today, I’m sure he would be much more restricted in his activities, partly to guard him against an array of different dangers, but also to make sure he aligned with the grownups’ notions of right and wrong. I think the assumption back then was that boys would naturally go astray for a while before growing up into conformity with the community and its standards of proper behavior.”

Writing in the midst of a pandemic

The past year has been anything but normal for Heynen, and during it “I actually finished a long novel,” he said, “The Last One-Room Schoolhouse In Iowa. It’s set in the Iowa landscape of my youth in the years of approximately 1954-1970. It’s off with my agent right now. Currently, I’m toying with another novel. It’s the story of an odd religious nut who goes seriously astray in the way he tries to apply Biblical passages to situations in his life.”

When he is not writing, Heynen said, “I’m always surprised at how much of my time is spent reading the work of friends and acquaintances. I love seeing work appear by Minnesota writers like Louise Erdrich, Jim Moore and John Minczeski. But I’ve been pulling some golden oldies off the bookshelf, too—the poetry of Lorca and Dickinson, the fiction of Hemingway, Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor. I became friends with Raymond Carver when I lived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, and I’m still a fan of his work.

From Shakespeare to Swampy Cree stories

“Early loves for me were Chaucer and Shakespeare. I actually completed the course work and exams for a Ph.D. in English Renaissance Literature at the University of Iowa, focusing on John Milton. I stopped in the middle of my dissertation and started writing poetry. My first publications were poetry, and then I got pulled into writing the boy tales after reading Howard Norman’s translation of Swampy Cree Naming Stories.

“The storytelling voice in those stories reminded me of the voices of the storytellers in my rural community,” Heynen said, “especially the storytelling voice of a neighbor, a man who kept cigars in his cap and who’d go into this little shed in his grove to wash eggs by kerosene light. As a kid, I was one of the people who would go to that shed and listen to him tell stories. He was a master of what I would call matter-of-fact hyperbole. He knew how to exaggerate the simplest facts to the point of making them very interesting—and often very funny.”

Heynen’s reading from The Youngest Boy will begin at 7 p.m. To register for the free link, visit subtextbooks.com or call 651-493-2791 for more information.

—Anne Murphy

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