by Sarah Hilary
That’s the word that leaps to mind when reading Benjamin Percy’s prose.
Robust. Muscular. Unflinching. These are stories about Men. Hunting,
shooting and fishing men. Men pitting themselves against nature, and
against other men. Men in the prime of life, and at either end of it.
Boys who want to be men, and those who mourn the passing of their
youth. Complex men and simple men in complex situations.
have liked to use the word ‘eclectic’ to describe this collection,
because that’s one of the qualities I admire most in short story
writers, but it’s not applicable here. These stories are fitted to
Percy’s theme and if I have a criticism it’s the slight weariness with
which I greeted another story that opened with a man doing battle, with
nature or age or himself. Taken as a whole, I found the repeating
patterns a disappointment. Individually, I loved the majority of the
stories told here.
Pacific Northwest after a nuclear accident, conjures a terrifically
compelling picture of feral poodles, gangs on the rampage and lost
souls finding one another in a crisis. The Killing is a
truly great story, of a Vietnam veteran who keeps his severed foot in a
bucket of formaldehyde and has a boneyard full of hunting trophies. His
relationship with his estranged daughter and her young son drives the
story, and Percy extracts every delicate ounce of emotion and
complexity from their struggle. This has the best ending too, with the
daughter poised between love and loyalty, tragedy and betrayal. I
wanted to read on, see what happened next.
Some reviewers have tried to pin the ‘horror’ badge on this collection
but it won’t fit, not least because Percy’s prose is too poetic. He
writes with precision, engages every sense and leads you exactly where
he wants you to go. Were the roles reversed, I’d like to take him out
of his comfort zone, away from forests and threats, knives and guns and
bikes. I’d like to see some urban stories in his next collection. And,
please, some decent roles for women? The victims of strokes and car
crashes and rapists, rendered mute or miserable or dead – women are not
served well in these stories. Perhaps that’s why I wanted so much to
see which way the daughter would jump at the end of The Killing,
empowered as she is with the knowledge of the awful thing her father
often the women in this collection are conspicuous by their absence. In
Refresh, all the men have gone to war, leaving their sons
alone to fight and fear, and hope for their return. Where are the boys’
mothers? Occasionally one appears as recipient of the worst news, but
she soon vanishes in a puff of domesticity, to honey a ham or collapse
on the kitchen floor. Refresh,
Refresh is a terrific story, deserved winner of the
Plimpton Prize, but the hole left by the women in the story is a flaw I
found hard to read around.
The Caves in
shows us a woman recovering from a miscarriage, a feat she achieves at
last in the dark, bonding with her mate in the unlit caves under their
home. I don’t like Freudian analyses of fiction as a rule, but it’s
kind of hard to avoid one in this instance. In The Faulty Builder,
a woman’s ectopic pregnancy is described as "her
clogged up with carnival strangeness". Superb
prose, but I get the impression that women’s biology is a source of
bafflement, maybe even reverence, for Benjamin Percy, which is why I’d
like to see him tackle it head on. Given the tremendous job he does
with the characters of the men he writes about, I don’t doubt he could
write complex, multi-faceted women who would add yet more depth and
resonance to his stories.
Intrigued? Read one of the
stories from this collection in the Barcelona Review.
won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892. Her
story, The Eyam Stones, was runner-up in the Historical Contest. Both
stories will be published in the Fish anthology 2008. MO: Crimes of
Practice, the new Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features
Sarah's story, One Last Pick-Up. Her work has appeared in Literary
Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee.
Sarah lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and daughter, where she
is writing a series of crime novels set in London and L.A.
Publisher: Graywolf Press
collection?: No, second
Awards: Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor
International Short Story Award 2008
Percy was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon. His
stories have appeared in Glimmer
Train, the Chicago Tribune, Best American Short Stories
and many other publications. The
Paris Review awarded their Plimpton Prize to his story, Refresh, Refresh. He
is the author of another collection of stories, The Language of Elk.
He teaches writing on the MFA program at Iowa State
University. He won a 2008 Whiting Writers Award.
with Benjamin Percy
Buy this book (used or
Publisher's Website: Graywolf
recommended booksellers: Powell's
Harry Schwartz Bookshops
forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near
you in the US
you liked this book you might also like....
William Kittredge "The
Best Short Stories of William Kittredge"
other reviewers thought:
West: The Voice of the Rocky Mountains