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The Proper Words for Sin

Gary Fincke
April 2013
PB 978-1-935978-88-6
ePub 978-1-935978-89-3
PDF 978-1-935978-90-9



Coal burns underground and destroys a small town. A woman confronts police officers with her pet copperheads. A young girl drinks Drano. A man is banned from his favorite bar.

Within these eleven short stories, Flannery O'Connor Award winner and poet Gary Fincke brings into focus the small struggles of ordinary people. The characters within this collection, from boys and girls to fathers, mothers, and the aging, live in cities, in towns, and in rural areas. Yet, no matter the surroundings, all seem alone within a collective anxiety.

Set against extraordinary events, such as the Three Mile Island accident, the Challenger Disaster, and the Kennedy assassination, these stories personalize history through a juxtaposition between large and small tragedies and the unflinching desire to find insight within and redemption from weakness and shortcomings.

2014 Paterson Fiction Prize finalist


            There’s Worse                                            

            The Out-of-Sorts                                         

            The Fierceness of Need                           


            All the Big Things                                                   

            Private Things                                             

            The Proper Words for Sin                         

            You Can Look This Up                              

            The Blazer Sestina                                     

            The Promises of Labels                           

            Somebody Somewhere Else        


Gary Fincke is the Writers Institute Director and Charles Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Winner of the 2003 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the 2003 Ohio State University/The Journal Poetry Prize, and the 2010 Stephen F. Austin Poetry Prize for recent collections, he has published twenty-four books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, most recently The History of Permanence, The Canals of Mars, The Fire Landscape, Sorry I Worried You, and Amp’d: A Father’s Backstage Pass, a nonfiction account of his son’s life as a rock guitarist in the band Breaking Benjamin. His work has appeared in such periodicals as Harper’s, Newsday, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, American Scholar, and Doubletake, and has been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR. He has twice been awarded Pushcart Prizes for his work, including “The Canals of Mars,” which was reprinted in The Pushcart Essays, an anthology of the best nonfiction published during the first twenty-five years of the Pushcart Prize volumes. He has been recognized by Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited eleven times in the past thirteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. Gary Fincke grew up near Pittsburgh and currently lives in central Pennsylvania.


"As you advance through The Proper Words for Sin,a collection of 11 stories from Gary Fincke, you know you’re in the hands of a pro."
Nick Healy, Star Tribune 

"Fincke’s people counter their everyday terrors . . . with sheer gritty determination. . . .Fine, close work from a master."
Stewart O'Nan, author of Snow Angels, The Odds, and Emily, Alone

“Subtle yet powerful, passionate but clear-eyed . . . It's all I want from fiction."
Steve Yarbrough, author of Safe from the Neighbors and The Oxygen Man

"Richly detailed and generous. A moving collection.”
William J. Cobb, author of The Bird Saviors

“Powerful, insightful, and cut to the bone.”
Joan Connor, author of How To Stop Loving Someone

“Wonderfully quirky, unpredictable stories. This is a remarkable collection.” 
Dan Chaon, author of Among the Missing and You Remind Me of Me

"Flannery O'Connor Award winner Gary Fincke crams the full spectrum of the human condition into the 11 short stories gathered in The Proper Words for Sin. The author, who teaches at Susquehanna University just north of Harrisburg and grew up near Pittsburgh, uses the ordinary lives and circumstances of his characters to cast shadows over larger events such as the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. While ratcheting up the anxiety, Mr. Fincke's poetic sensibility never allows him to craft a hyperventilating word. This is thoughtful, morally engaged fiction at its best."
Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Fincke’s writing is at once contemplative and vivid. In his hands, the examined life is not just worth living—it’s definitely worth reading about."
Shawn Syms, ForeWord Reviews 

"This collection of short fiction featuring variety in literary elements and techniques shows off the writing chops of Pennsylvania author Fincke. In the 11 stories, Fincke depicts the reactions of small-town folk to historical events. His characters are distinctive, with interesting quirks, and his plots, in conveying different crises of daily living, shed light on the human condition. His range extends to voice and person and is especially strong in the portrayal of boys on the verge of puberty or in their teens. Set in 1957, “Weepers” is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy who is experimenting with a neighbor’s booze and his own budding sexuality. In “The Proper Words for Sex,” a milkman describes his son’s friendship with the girl across the street, who is the object of the narrator’s sexual obsession. A proofreader at the community newspaper looks on ruefully while his mother deals with her arrest for threatening the police with poisonous snakes. This artful collection is sure to appeal to fans of the form."
Ellen LoughranBooklist