Monday, March 2, 2009
Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy. Refresh, Refresh. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2007. $15.00 paper (ISBN 978-1-55597-485-5), 249 pages.
Reviewed by Nina Mamikunian
The characters in Benjamin Percy’s newest collection of stories, Refresh, Refresh, are looking for ways to start over and ways to keep going. Set in small, Oregon towns, these ten stories explore relationships that revolve around loss, abandonment, violence and death. Boys have lost fathers to war, fathers have lost daughters to abusive relationships, husbands and wives have lost children before they were born. Car crashes, nuclear meltdowns, and bear attacks are not uncommon in the worlds that Percy creates. His characters are inextricably tied not only to one another but also to this menacing world around them. Yet, they refuse to surrender, and so fight—almost savagely—against themselves and against nature for the small bits of happiness and peace in their lives. The narrator of “When the Bear Came” seems to describe the lives of all the books’ characters when he realizes “It was as if a rhythm had been beating all along, the rhythm of the land, and finally I had found it, here in the peace of the dark woods, with only one slug and twenty feet of rope between me and absolution.”
The tensions that run beneath the surface of these stories are palpable and often take on corporeal forms, such as the amputated foot in “The Killing,” or the bruises young boys inflict on one another in the title story “Refresh, Refresh.” Often, they take on more overwhelming proportions, such as the ominous, dark spaces that run beneath the houses in “The Caves in Oregon” or the torrential floods of water spouting from the fire hydrants in “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This.” Percy manages to create physical senses of absence so well that those absences almost feel like characters themselves. It is these absences that form the backbones of the stories and of their characters’ lives. Explicit or not, each of these stories carries with it a sense of unease and a sense of a world where, in an instant, either everything or nothing will turn out all right. The boys in “Refresh, Refresh” know that “It [doesn’t] take much imagination to realize how something can drop out of the sky and change everything.” But rather than let this fear overwhelm them, the characters accept it and integrate it into their everyday lives, constantly struggling to accept the unknown and the unchangeable.
Violence and death are also key features, with blood pumping through these pages as it pumps through the human body. Many of the stories center on hunting, and in doing so treat life, death, and survival in a very matter of fact way. Despite the perceived divide between man and beast, the hunter and the hunted, there is an undeniable connection between the men and animals here, and the men in these stories are connecting to their most primal emotional instincts as they venture into dark forests, often connecting themselves to their prey in the most literal ways: smearing blood on their faces or keeping their amputated body parts in their taxidermy sheds. Men are constantly reminded of their own mortality in these settings and of the near impossibility of true safety. But it is precisely this heightened sense of alarm combined with Percy’s expert control that makes these stories such a thrill to read. These forests—both the literal tracts of land and the psychological spaces the stories occupy—are, indeed, dark and deep, but Percy is a knowing guide.