By Benjamin Percy
249 pages, $15
Central Oregon native Benjamin Percy is a 28-year-old writer who created a stir among short story fans when his “Refresh, Refresh,” won the Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review and earned a spot in the Best American Short Stories 2006. That year’s guest editor, Ann Patchett, called it “the story of 2006.” Set in Oregon’s Deschutes County, its searing authenticity, brutal energy, and pitch-perfect dramatization of the impact of the Iraq war on communities that are losing their fathers to combat make it a tale that should be reprinted in anthologies for years to come. But was it beginner’s luck? Not exactly. Percy may be young, but he’s already a prolific writer with two collections, the second of which, Refresh, Refresh, was recently published by Graywolf Press.
The consistent quality of this book makes it clear that Percy has carefully honed his craft until his tales became so sharp that they cut. And bleed—every story in Refresh, Refresh unleashes a good deal of blood: There’s a refrigerator in “The Caves of Oregon” that bleeds when the power goes out and the meat inside defrosts, deer and bears that bleed after they are shot, bloody victims of a creature that may be Bigfoot in “The Woods,” and all manner of beatings, shootings, accidents, and injuries. The Iraq war and prior American wars are a looming presence in many of the stories, which often feature veterans or the families they’ve left behind.
Percy contrasts this brutality with the rugged beauty of Oregon, but his characters don’t do much rhapsodizing over the scenery because violence often follows them into the wilderness. In Percy’s stories, the landscape plays an active, often menacing role in the drama.
In “Refresh, Refresh,” which reads like a contemporary counterpart to Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam masterpiece, “The Things They Carried,” two high school boys in Tumalo, Oregon meet outside after school every day to practice fighting. “We were trying to make each other tougher.” The boys’ fathers have been away, serving in Iraq, since Tumalo’s National Guard Unit was called up, leaving a ghost town behind:
“In January, the battalion was activated, and in March they shipped off for Iraq. Our fathers—our coaches, our teachers, our barbers, our cooks, our gas-station attendants and UPS deliverymen and deputies and firemen and mechanics—our fathers, so many of them, climbed onto the olive green school buses and pressed their palms to the windows and gave us the bravest, most hopeful smiles you can imagine, and vanished. Just like that.”
The only adult males left in Tumalo are the “old men,” the “incapable men,” and the “vulturous men,” one of whom, a military recruitment officer, becomes the focus of the boys’ anger in the devastating conclusion.
All of the stories in Refresh, Refresh are taut, but some of them meander a bit more than does the title tale, especially those in which Percy turns his attention to family relationships. In “The Caves in Oregon,” a young couple trying to recover emotionally in the aftermath of a miscarriage live above a cave, “a lava tube,” that “runs beneath their house, their neighborhood, and beyond a vast tunnel that once carried in it molten rock the color of an angry sun.” Fertility problems are also at the root of the difficulties of a Bend couple in late middle age, who head out for a vacation to the coast and are walloped by an epic storm, with disastrous consequences. In “Whisper,” a complicated and downright creepy character study unfolds, revealing the long buried resentment between two brothers; there are enough twists and mysteries in this one to fuel a novel.
Although Percy has a deft touch for portraying relationships between men and women, my favorite stories in the collection deal mainly with relationships among men. In “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This,” an isolated man named David with a large birthmark on his face works for the Pine, Oregon water division, flushing fire hydrants. When his boss assigns him a partner, a man who recently came back from serving in Iraq, David expects to resent the intrusion, but instead makes a friend. My summary makes it sound cheesy, but it isn’t–it’s a sensitive, nuanced, and honest portrait. “The Woods” is a superb literary horror tale that unfolds when a father and a son who have had some difficulty relating to each other–the father is blue collar, the son is a college-educated tech worker–set out for a hunting trip in Ochoco National Forest, and come across a dead body. The tension builds and turns “The Woods” into one of the best Bigfoot stories I’ve ever read. I also loved “When the Bear Came,” set in a small town with a hungry bear on the loose in the nearby woods; one young man determines to kill it.
The audience for short stories is usually very limited–so few major magazines publish stories anymore, and so few people read them. But it would be a shame for anyone who enjoys fiction to skip Percy’s work just because it’s in the short story form. Even though he jumps from genre to genre in Refresh, Refresh, with stories that could be classified as science fiction or horror alongside more straightforward “literary” pieces, Percy’s vision is so focused, his themes so resonant, his ability to induce suspense and tension so refined, that Refresh, Refresh feels much larger than the sum of its parts. Others have picked up on this larger-than-life quality to Percy’s stories–the writer and director James Ponsoldt is currently working on a screen adaptation of the title story. Refresh, Refresh offers readers a chance to catch Percy at the beginning of a career that’s sure to be a long and fruitful one, so that one day they can say they were reading him way back when.