‘Early Morning Riser’ mixes hilarity with life lessons

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Katherine Heiny’s new book, “Early Morning Riser,” is a comic novel that doesn’t need a laugh track. “Early Morning Riser” will make you laugh out loud on its own. It’s that funny.

The premise is relatively simple. Jane, 26, is a newly minted schoolteacher who begins teaching second grade in Boyne City. She gets romantically involved with a handsome woodworker, Duncan, who by all claims is the town’s Lothario and has no intention of settling down.

Heiny, in a phone conversation from her home in Bethesda, Maryland, said her parents, who both worked for Dow Chemical Co. in her hometown of Midland, were “smart people who were funny by nature.”

“Sometimes, I think I was the wrong baby taken home from the hospital,” she said. “I scored seven percentiles on the ACT test,” Heiny said. 

If the ACT measured a sense of humor, she would have had a perfect score.

“I also have a basic insecurity that people won’t read my book unless there is a joke in every paragraph,” she said.

Her new book pretty much lives up to that rigor. It starts with her meeting Duncan, who comes to her rescue after she locks herself out of her home in her pajamas. Duncan, a jack-of-all-trades, is also a locksmith. He can open any door, and pajamas are no problem either.

Heiny chose Boyne City as the location for her new novel because she and her husband once owned a summer cottage there.

“My husband was a diplomat, and we wanted the kids to have stability. Our boys learned to walk, had their first jobs and learned to drive a car there,” she said.

Heiny posits her one son may have learned to walk because of the sticky floor at the Sportsman, a bar they used to frequent while staying at their cottage.

What makes this book so different from a romance novel, which it isn’t, despite its many frolics, is Heiny’s use of complex secondary characters to round out Jane and Duncan’s relationship.

Jimmy is an intellectually challenged man who works for Duncan in his woodworking business; Aggie is Duncan’s ex-wife and Frieda is Jane’s best friend who, like a singing cowboy, is permanently attached to her mandolin — always at the ready to strum a folksong or two.

Heiny is a lover of folk music and the book’s title is derived from one of her favorite tunes, which she associates with Northern Michigan. 

“As I was thinking about the book, I would listen to folk music,” she said.

The relationship between Jimmy, Duncan and Jane is particularly heart-warming and heartbreaking. Heiny masterfully mixes humor with touching scenes of love, frustration and the reality of life for Jimmy.

Aggie is a hard driving real estate agent, whose new husband has an aversion to just about everything and everyone. For the longest time, Duncan and Aggie had a thing going after she remarried, and he still cuts her grass, which makes Jane a little suspicious.

Some of the funniest scenes take place in the classroom, where Jane teaches a typical second grade class.

“My favorite scene is when Jane is in the classroom; teaching while she is pregnant,” Heiny said.

Duncan and Jane’s life goes merrily along, even after a tragic accidental death; Jimmy moving in with them, their marriage; two active children and an ex-wife who is over the top. Soon, you’ve breezed through nearly two decades in Boyne City.

Jane said her two favorite books, “High Fidelity” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” were discovered while living in London.

Her favorite author is Anne Tyler, whose poignant and funny novels have inspired Heiny. “Everything I want to be, hope to be — I owe to Anne Tyler,” she said. 

Early reviews of the book in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal raved, but one reviewer questioned whether a second grader would know about a lap dance. In today’s world, that is not totally improbable.

Heiny was one of those early writers, but when she was turned down for a creative writing class during her senior year in high school, she was a little unsettled. However, all doubts were dispelled when she was accepted into Columbia University’s MFA program. When Heiny was 25, she had an article published in The New Yorker.

Heiny has written two other books using her own name, “Single, Carefree and Mellow” in 2015 and “Standard Deviation” in 2017.

If there is one overriding message to take from Heiny’s novel, it is that everyday life can be both funny and tender, often in the same sentence.

Heiny has observations about everything, from menopause to pasta. 

In the book, she calls fettuccine alfredo the “SPAM of Italian food.”

If you are wondering, a phone call with Heiny is just as funny as reading her book.

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