Life during wartime

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Refresh, Refresh
Benjamin Percy
256 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, 2007.

In Refresh, Refresh, his second collection of short stories, Benjamin Percy examines the fallout of the Iraq war on the people at home.  Set on Oregon's high plateau, these tales are shaped by the tension between the banal and the bizarre. The collection's eponymous knockout story describes what happens to two teenage boys when their National Guardsman fathers are posted to Iraq. The boys begin holding backyard boxing matches after "a no-neck line-backer with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks" beat the narrator's friend:

Eventually he healed, the rough
husks of scabs peeling away to
reveal a different face than the one
I remembered, older, squarer,
fiercer, his left eyebrow separated
by a gummy white scar. … if he
went down, he would go down
swinging, as his father would have
wanted. That was what we all
wanted, to please our fathers, to
make them proud, even though they
had left us.  

Few writers have captured the emotional core of the Iraq War with the conviction of this 28-year-old author. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed: The title story has inspired a forthcoming movie, and Percy recently earned a prestigious Whiting Award of $50,000.

The tales in Refresh, Refresh sparkle when they stay grounded, showing us the struggles of complex but recognizable people. Percy's apt, precise prose strengthens his stories. In "The Caves of Oregon," for example, he describes the high plateau at the center of the state: "(It) looks like another planet. Mars maybe. The reddish blackish landscape is busy with calderas, cinder cones, lava blisters, pressure ridges, pressure plateaus — much of it the hardened remains of basalt, a lava that spreads quickly, like thin porridge." This is Percy at his best.

But when he slides into the surreal, the characters become thin and the plots implausible. Stories such as "Meltdown" and "The Woods" edge into science fiction: a post-nuclear travelogue, a visit from Bigfoot. When Percy veers away from reality and emphasizes the bizarre, it weakens an otherwise stellar collection; the stories collapse in on themselves like unstable ground. But when he stays with ordinary people struggling to get by in extraordinary times, Refresh, Refresh is impossible to put down.

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