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Refresh, Refresh
Benjamin Percy

Alongside his severed foot float the remains of the photograph. The formaldehyde has leached his daughter from the photo paper and flecks of her hang along the top of the bucket and maybe in one fleck he sees what looks like a mouth, smiling or snarling at him, it’s hard to tell."

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

Masculine. 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. 

I’d 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. 

Meltdown, about the 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 has done. 

Too often the women in this collection are conspicuous by their absence. In Refresh, 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 Oregon 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 fallopian tube… 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.

Sarah Hilary 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.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets" 


PublisherGraywolf Press

Publication Date: 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No, second

Awards: Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2008

Author bio: Benjamin 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.

Read an interview with Benjamin Percy

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