thechapbookreview

Talking Man

Talking Man

Chapbook by Mike Heppner
Small Anchor Press, November 2008 (2nd, trade edition)
32 pp, $7.00

Reviewed by Josh Maday

At first glance, Talking Man by Mike Heppner is about a boy humoring his father’s rambling attempt at a life lecture about expectations and disappointment, and how he looks away, staring at the kids next door playing in their back yard, while his mother slaves away in the kitchen. However, Heppner quickly weaves a vision of contemporary family dysfunction, showing how there is always another layer, another thread to the story. Through ten-year-old Jim Stebbin’s eyes we see that although highly educated, successful, and wealthy, his family is falling silently apart.

Without being heavy-handed, Heppner poignantly handles the hypocritical, dubious, and self-serving way that adults often address children. An art teacher’s praise of Jim’s “wonderful use of color” and “keen eye for details” prompts his dad to tell Jim how it is, how one should not take frivolous praise seriously. Stebbins seems like a guy who rarely emerges from his own orbit to engage his family, one who can’t handle someone else being praised, even his son, and so intends to put him in his place. Awkwardly, instead of talking to his son, he keeps talking about himself instead. Heppner addresses both parental hypocrisy and the difficulty parents often have negotiating a relationship with their own children. The opening of the story, for example:

And I want you to know I’m saying this because I love you and I care about you and I want you to do well—in life, that is. I want you to do well in life. See, you can tell I’m no good at talking like this. I’m much more comfortable around people my own age. I’ve always tried treating you like a little adult, and maybe that’s wrong of me. Maybe that’s bad. Maybe I should make goo-goo faces and talk down to you like some parents, but that’s not my style. That’s not how I do business. Your mother can tell you, I’ve never been comfortable around children. The truth is I don’t like kids much, which is why I prefer thinking of you as a young adult.

And so Heppner builds the reader’s first impression of Mr. Stebbins. While presumably addressing the meaning of the teacher’s praise, Jim’s father continually gravitates back to talking about himself. Although a professor with a PhD, he is a frustrated would-be author and a failure as a husband, and was recently overlooked for a promotion. He says, “You may not realize this—we don’t talk about it much at the dinner table—but I’m one of the world’s foremost experts on theoretical aerodynamics.” Statements slipping through like this make it clear that Jim’s father is hoping to at least not fail at being a father, though he suspects he may already have done that.

Heppner does not create a straw man, however, but rather a complex character. The more Stebbins talks, the more he reveals his hurt, resentment, and fear about all of his failures. He’s obviously self-absorbed, but he’s also a conflicted man-child for whom life seems to have been a bitter disappointment especially since he was dethroned from a borderline incestuous oedipal childhood game he and his mother had played:

You never knew my mother, but I suppose you’ve got a little of her in you. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, so she focused all of her attention on me…We had a little routine where I’d sit in my play chair, which she’d painted gold to look like a throne, and she’d bow to the floor and ask “His Royal Highness” what His orders were for the day, and I’d wave my tinfoil scepter and bap her on the head with it, and we both had a great time doing that for years and years. My father didn’t see the humor in it. I seem to remember calling her “my servant girl,” which was part of the joke. This went on until I was grown and out of the house. Not the throne and scepter part—we gave that up around high school.

Throughout Talking Man Heppner carefully molds his characters, brings the nuance of their humanity into focus. There are moments when Jim’s father makes potentially devastating value judgments about him. For instance, when finally getting back around to talking about the teacher praising Jim’s artwork: “I’ll be honest. I’m just not seeing the glow.” While it’s clear that he wants to impart some wisdom to his son that will help him avoid repeating his father’s midlife disappointments and to be successful in life, he just keeps fumbling.

Heppner’s choice of third person narrative enables him to weave together the many threads of perception, giving the story more texture than if it were limited to Jim’s first person point of view. Like most children of crumbling marriages, Jim finds himself in the middle of everything, able to observe the mess from many angles, and Heppner captures this by mimicking Jim’s attention drift, with each paragraph shifting around the cycle, from Jim’s father’s monologue to his mother in the kitchen to the neighbor kids in their back yard to his memories of all of these.

Heppner also touches on some forms of class division, notably parent/child, scientist/artist, as well as strata of intellectual ability and accomplishment. The most overt example is how Jim’s parents underestimate his intelligence the way most kids are underestimated by adults. Jim’s dad is aware of this tendency, and yet, despite his conscious attempt not to “talk down” to Jim, he still does it: “Artists are wonderful, amazing people—painters, sculptors, musicians . . . well, you know what an artist is. I don’t need to tell you what the word means.” Sure, Jim doesn’t know everything: he certainly doesn’t quite understand Scott and Randy, the two brothers next door, being an only child and “having trouble decoding the language of siblings,” but he can at least see that his own family is no happier than Scott and Randy’s next door, even though his “reading scores were much higher than theirs.” And their parents are “deadbeats,” a word he seems likely to have learned from his parents.

Heppner artfully frames the reader’s perception and interpretation and then reverses and complicates them both without breaking the flow of the narrative, making this short story rich and complex, keeping the reader thinking about the story long after the last line. When Jim finally gets his chance to talk, the tremendous power and responsibility of this act becomes clear. And while his mother prepares dinner, she seems like the good mother, the victim of an egomaniacal husband. However, once she’s drunk a few glasses of wine, she has same difficulty as her husband trying to connect and talk with her son. She admits that cooking new spicy food all the time is mostly an attempt to give Mr. Stebbins indigestion. Her hurt and resentment are also glaringly apparent. It’s no wonder Jim can’t help looking away at the neighbor boys “roughhousing,” or daydreaming about a religious sect, the meaning of their vow of silence, and what it might mean to breach that promise. Jim thinks about the word “roughhouse”: “‘Roughhouse’ was another of those words that sounded made-up. At some point there had been a house where things got rough, and that’s where the word came from.”

Talking Man operates on many levels, tells many stories: it is the story of a typically dysfunctional family where the parents make silent war never realizing that they are being recorded by their child’s acute senses; it is the story of a boy fathered by a man who is still a little boy; it is a case of every worldly advantage still not adding up to greater happiness; it is the inability to be supportive of others’ successes when we ourselves feel unfulfilled; it is cultivating a façade, a game face, while underneath we are nursing our wounds or dreaming of another life; it is the inability to really communicate despite torrents of words. Heppner weaves a kaleidoscopic narrative of varying voices, mirroring perfectly the complex dynamic that connects each person within the inextricable tangle of family and human relationships.

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