Kaye Park Hinckley’s Birds of a Feather, her first collection of short fiction, is a book of 10 stories about people who could be the everyday folks you know in your family, in your town, in your neighborhood, in your church, and even in your mirror—especially those most in need of the Lord’s mercy.
If you aren’t already familiar with her other work—short stories in several journals and an award-winning first novel, A Hunger in the Heart—Birds of a Feather is a fine introduction to a talented and sensitive Catholic writer whose complex stories are gripping, memorable, and abounding in nourishment for readers hungry for substantial Christian fiction.
Hinckley’s new book is typical of the meat-and-potatoes fiction that characterizes literature published by Wiseblood Books in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Its name inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s classic novel, this exciting Catholic publisher “fosters works of fiction…that find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle us from the tyranny of boredom; mock the pretensions of respectability; engage the hidden mysteries of the human heart, be they sources of either violence or courage; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; dare an unflinching gaze at human beings as ‘political animals,’ and suffer through this world’s trials without forfeiting hope.”
The short stories in Birds of a Feather are richly imagined tales full of finely drawn characters who demonstrate how people estranged from faith can bumble through life so distracted by worldly horrors and delights, so full of themselves, that they don’t even notice faint nudges of grace that stir in their souls or recognize subtle emanations of the holy that abound in the world around them.
Many of these characters were once respectable and respected men and women—a college professor, a nurse, a construction manager, an attorney’s wife, a young married woman, a physician, a doting mother and grandmother, an insurance executive elected Boss of the Year, a soldier—whose rash decisions or actions or indecision or inaction have enmeshed them in tangled webs of deceit, despair, and the refusal to forgive. Having abandoned God, they are travelers struggling alone down the broad path to destruction.
Juxtapose these with gentle, hardworking, grace-bearing characters who focus on others instead of themselves—a compassionate nurse, a young sales clerk mothered by twin sisters, a sensitive waitress, a husband much like Hosea, a prisoner with the name of an angel, and even the benevolent ghosts of dead relatives—and you have the stuff of absorbing fiction.
Hinckley speckles her stories with birds, trees, grass, flowers, cruciform objects, lines from old hymns and old films, and light (both natural and artificial)—messages carrying truths or whispers of beauty and hope that her characters too often fail to notice—and then she drops into the narrative stunning moments of the most terrible revelation to jolt them to their senses and, for those who so choose, to acceptance of grace. This can mean chilling physical violence such as the bloody murders in “Shooting at Heaven’s Gate,” or it can be soul-crushing emotional violence. In “Dragon,” it is the diagnosis of AIDS. In “the Psalm of David Fowler,” it is his unexpected arrest, conviction, and incarceration. In “The Mercy Seat,” it is the quiet moment in which a shameful secret is revealed. In “Shooting at Heaven’s Gate,” it is when a sociology professor suffering from cocaine addiction, jealousy, and mental illness is haunted by his dead grandfather’s voice, saying, “Are you afraid change will be painful? Let me tell you…it will hurt like fiery Hell, but it sure beats going there!”
Hinckley’s voice and her style of writing vary in interesting ways from the terse and shocking “Dragon” to the oddly humorous “Jimmy’s Cat” to the dreamy musicality of “The Pleasure of Company: A Ghost Story.” Throughout, there are lovely passages that stick in the reader’s mind such as this one from “Moon Dance: A Love Story”:
When you are old, there are painful things to be remembered. In the moonlight, your page, your time on earth—all this will be read to you, all in one moment. Listen. In silence you will hear the story of your life, the whisperings of God leading you through it.
She is also good at description that pops a place into vivid life. In “Blue Bird of Happiness,” she escorts her readers to a bar just off Old Florida Highway 98:
I turn the Lexus into the parking lot of The Boat Dock Bar, crushing primeval oyster shells beneath Michelin Energy tires while triangular flags slap plastic, carrot-colored polka dots against a hallowed, sapphire sky, and an incongruent blast of music shuts out the pious breath of waves. There are lots of bars in Destin, but this one is set apart. The Boat Dock Bar claimed her Gulf-front spot when the town was just another Florida fishing hole and then held to it, regenerating like the tail of a lizard after Hurricane Dennis.
While much of the content of Birds of a Feather is suspenseful or grim and cheerless, there are playful bits of humor. In “Shooting at Heaven’s Gate,” the outrageous character Moline, described as “blonde, tall, and indiscriminately tolerant of most anything that passes before her,” reveals that “she learned her open-mindedness from her favorite rock star Chancee Wile.” And the “moment of truth” in “Jimmy’s Cat” is one of the funniest scenes ever.
A native Alabaman, Hinckley describes what she writes as “Southern fiction—translating a world on the edge.” She has the emotional prowess to stare straight into that teetering world without flinching and the keen spiritual vision to spot the slimmest possibility of grace hiding in the most unlikely souls. But, while these 10 stories are set in Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida and include interesting glimpses of towns and the countryside along the Gulf of Mexico, Hinckley’s work is less fiction of place than fiction of the human condition. Certainly her stories evoke the work of earlier, though very different, Southern writers, including Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, yet some of her characterizations are also reminiscent of British novelist Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory and his Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter.
The technical skill to craft interesting stories with sympathetic characters and a strong sense of place are important gifts in a writer. Yet these are merely tools for Kaye Park Hinckley’s greater achievement in Birds of a Feather: showing through 10 diverse, entertaining stories, with never a moment of preaching, proselytizing, or moralizing, how beauty and grace can coexist with and even overcome weak and willful human nature and lead sinners to possibilities of love, hope, and extending or receiving forgiveness.
Birds of a Feather
Stories by Kaye Park Hinckley
Milwaukee, WI: Wiseblood Books, 2014
Softcover, 224 pages
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