There is little hope, and even less cheer, in Percy’s disturbing second collection of stories. In ten stand-alone tales, people — mostly men — struggle to express themselves. Set in central Oregon, the stories are disconnected from time and it is only through references to extant events that we find a contemporary foothold. This is a world bypassed by feminism, a world in which men prove their mettle by hunting, fishing and fighting, and women are near-silent co-conspirators. What’s more, it’s a world where six-year-old boys are more likely to receive guns — and lessons in using them — than Webkinz, a universe in which blood and gore are routine companions.
Percy’s writing is spare, his imagery and language so matter-of-factly violent that it is sure to unsettle urbane readers. Throughout, he also explores what it means to be limited by a lower-middle-class culture that restricts personal options and stymies creativity and difference.
The title story, ‘Refresh, Refresh’, won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and was included in Best American Short Stories 2006. In it, teenaged boys attempt to understand why their National Guardsmen fathers have been sent to Iraq. Hoping for news, they compulsively check their email, repeatedly hitting the refresh button. Their never-articulated need for paternal attention is palpable; despite feeling abandoned, they want to make their fathers proud. Indeed, fractured father-child dynamics are repeatedly explored in Refresh, Refresh. In ‘The Woods’, for example, a camping trip brings a middle-aged parent and his adult son together for a weekend in the Ochoco National Forest. Never close, the pair struggles to undo their lack of camaraderie. It’s heavy stuff, with a chilling denouement. In ‘The Killing’, Jim is desperate to protect his daughter and grandson from her abusive mate; once again, their inability to communicate limits what’s possible. Here, as in the rest of this collection, violence takes over when words fail.
The impact is consistently devastating, whether Percy is depicting a post-apocalyptic West Coast or showcasing the ways we, as humans, have bungled the promise of co-existence. Intense and angry, vivid and creepy, these are stories that shock, awe and stay with you.