Letdown, Letdown
A Contrary review by Michael Andrews

	After The Paris Review published it in 2005, “Refresh, Refresh,” the title story from Benjamin Percy’s second story collection, won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize, was included in Best American Short Stories 2006, and was optioned for a film, with Percy co-writing the screenplay. This attention has been deserved, for “Refresh, Refresh” is an extraordinary piece of fiction. However, it’s the strength of the title story that makes the rest of this collection so disappointing.
        Percy sets “Refresh, Refresh” in a small Oregon town where nearly all the fathers have been sent off to fight in the second Iraq war. Among those left behind are the unnamed narrator and his friend Gordon, two adolescent boys who do extraordinary things to ward off the fear that their fathers will be killed. They box each other in the front yard until their faces are swollen and bloody. They sled down the wall of an enormous crater at suicidal speeds. They terrorize the Marine recruiter who sent their fathers off to war. As the story unfolds — as the boys become men through trials of violence — they come to resemble their absent fathers:  “We began to look like them. Our fathers, who had been taken from us, were everywhere, at every turn, imprisoning us.” This theme – the sons destined for the same tragic fate as their fathers – culminates in a stunning, heartbreaking ending. “Refresh, Refresh” is easily among the most affecting, most original works of American fiction in recent years.
	In its treatment of the Iraq war, it is also among the most political, although there is little competition here. Scandalously few American fiction writers have attempted to confront the war in Iraq. Indeed, at a reading he gave recently in New York City, Percy said he wrote “Refresh, Refresh” partly because he saw so little American fiction about the war.
        Every story in the collection mentions Iraq, but with one or two exceptions, the other stories are solidly mediocre. Where “Refresh, Refresh” is subtle and potent, stories like “The Killing” are clumsy and slack. In one scene, the man who commits the titular killing is standing on his porch, and Percy ruins a poignant moment by saying too much:  “A low cackling draws his attention skyward, where he spots a flock of geese passing overhead. Their spearhead formation, headed south, seems to suggest that change is possible and necessary.” This tendency to explain where he should merely suggest plagues many of Percy’s stories, which is why they often feel too long. The stories are also sprinkled with some woefully banal lines:

“Old enough to shoot a gun, young enough to fear the dark” (“The Woods”)
“This is why I take out my gun sometimes, and look at it” (“Crash”)
“Sometimes, when John burrowed his head between her thighs and darted his tongue in and out of her, he imagined he could taste the child” (“The Faulty Builder”).

The worst cringe in this collection, however, belongs to “The Woods.” An estranged father and son try to reconcile by going on a hunting trip together. Their trip is interrupted when they happen upon a horribly mutilated corpse. Later their dog goes missing, and they find its bloody collar hanging from the branch of a tree, a branch too high for any human to reach. What is responsible for these horrors? None other than that elusive, hirsute scourge of the Pacific Northwest woods: Big Foot. Percy asks us to believe this, without irony or humor.
The disparity between “Refresh, Refresh” and the rest of this collection at first seems puzzling, but Percy himself inadvertently explained it at his reading in New York. He said the editors at The Paris Review made substantial changes to his draft of “Refresh, Refresh,” cutting it by twenty pages, removing magical-realist elements, and giving the story its odd but fitting title. One hopes, then, that Percy takes their criticism to heart and learns to write more stories as powerful as “Refresh, Refresh.”

Michael Andrews is a writer who lives in Queens.

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Refresh, Refresh
by Benjamin Percy
2007, Graywolf Press
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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