Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy
I’ll be honest—I had never heard of Benjamin Percy until I was assigned this book to read for my Intro to Creative Writing class. I don’t read a lot of short stories, as I’ve mentioned, and the sort of traditionally masculine themes the back cover promised me Refresh, Refresh explored are usually of little interest to me. But I believe anything can be well-written, and, after realizing I had been assigned the whole collection, I powered through it on a Saturday afternoon. It left me feeling… unsettled.
Refresh, Refresh collects nine of Percy’s previously published short stories—“The Caves in Oregon”, “The Woods”, “The Killing”, “The Faulty Builder”, “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This”, “The Whisper”, “Crash”, the titular “Refresh, Refresh”, and “When the Bear Came”—all set in Oregon or the Northwest and focusing on boys and men trying to negotiate their masculine identities against the forces that control their lives, from the military to women to a bear to their own internal limitations. If you want to be a man, the stories in this collection argue, you better damn well prove yourself one.
Haunting is both the right and wrong word to describe these stories. For me, haunting comes with connotations of tragedy, of knowing things too late—for instance, the first two books in His Dark Material have haunting endings, because both main characters realize something vitally important too late to do anything about it. Refresh, Refresh doesn’t have that, but it’s still haunting, especially the titular story. In that story, the town of Tumalo, Oregon, is emptied of “real” men when their reserve unit is activated and sent to Iraq, and the teenage sons try so hard to fill in the gaps they left behind, to the point of self-obliteration. While they are occasionally aware of tragic elements, the boys and men in this collection grimly trudge through them, too proud to acknowledge them. In “The Woods”, an estranged father and son go on a hunting trip, only to discover a dead body at their usual camping ground—the son wants to leave, but the father sets up camp. To me, that’s more frightening, and so these grim shades of men have been haunting me.
And, of course, these are not always nominally good men. “The Whisper” focuses on an elderly rapist setting his sights on his widowed sister-in-law, whom he’s always lusted after, and “The Faulty Builder”, my particular favorite out of the collection, focuses on a nervous failure of a man. The protagonists of these short stories swing between those two poles, getting little sympathy from the reader. John, the protagonist of “The Faulty Builder” is, perhaps, the most sympathetic—a failed, aging, and obese man who views his mortality dimly, tries vainly to connect with his wife, and forces them both out on a vacation in the middle of a horrific storm, because the ocean is the only thing that makes him feel like life is worth living. I’m spooked just writing about it—these boys, these men, sometimes feel like ghosts, ranging from benign to nightmarish.
Naturally, the relationship between father and son is a focus for Percy in these stories—there are many times fathers look at their sons with a look that communicates both judgment and love. The absent fathers motivate the teenage boys of “Refresh, Refresh”; two men connect and then sever that connection in “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This”; a camping trip goes horribly wrong in “The Woods”. It’s explored well, but I was more fascinated by the women who wander through Percy’s stories. These women are all inscrutable and, often, are wives who have suffered miscarriages. “The Caves in Oregon” focuses on a couple reconnecting after a miscarriage; the wife remains unfathomable to her husband, even as they heal. “The Killing” focuses on a father and daughter, as he tries to take charge of her abusive relationship, and “The Crash” focuses on a father and daughter too. All remain an utter mystery to the men in their lives. The daughter in “The Crash” is quite young and recently unmothered; when her father, in a fit of meanness, asks her how she’s going to send her Christmas card to her dead mother, she merely blinks and tells him she’ll send it with him when he goes. All of this adds to the ghostly nature of the short story collection—connection is impossible, especially the further away from yourself you get. It creeps me out, frankly, and I think that’s something Percy was trying to get at. Brrrr.
Bottom line: The boys and men who populate the short stories collected in Refresh, Refresh are like ghosts, grim and violent. This is a world were connection is impossible and women are unfathomable. Creepy.
I bought this used book from Amazon.