Refresh, Refresh Stories

Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press



256 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
The war in Iraq empties the small town of Tumalo, Oregon, of men—of fathers—leaving their sons to fight among themselves. But the boys’ bravado fades at home when, alone, they check e-mail again and again for word from their fathers at the front.
Often from fractured homes and communities, the young men in these stories do the unthinkable to prove to themselves—to everyone—that they are strong enough to face the heartbreak in this world. Set in rural Oregon with the shadow of the Cascade Mountains hanging over them, these stories bring you face-to-face with a mad bear, into a house with a basement that opens up into a cave, and through a nuclear meltdown that renders the Pacific Northwest into a contemporary Wild West. Refresh, Refresh is a bold collection that deals with vital issues of our time.


Praise for Refresh, Refresh

"Benjamin Percy proved he is a remarkable storyteller with his first collection, The Language of Elk. He breaks new ground with Refresh, Refresh, which includes half a dozen short stories that are among the first to measure the human repercussions in the ongoing narrative of the Iraq war . . . The fiction inspired by the Iraq war is just beginning to appear. This fierce and eloquent collection offers tales of the fallout from the conflict on the home front. The standout is the title story, which describes what happens to the sons of Tumalo, Ore., a high-desert town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, when their fathers ship off for Iraq. These were the fathers who enlisted as reservists for 'beer pay' and spent one weekend a month and two weeks a year training in the Oregon ranch country that was such a match for the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and northern Iraq that a 50-acre base was built there in the 1980s to house a Marine battalion . . . Percy displays a steely mastery as he explores and defines the unexpected dangers and fresh fears of this new century."—John Ciabattari, Los Angeles Times

"I first heard Benjamin Percy's short story 'Refresh, Refresh' read with great compassion by Ted Marcoux on National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. My husband and I were stunned by the precision of Percy's writing and the brilliance of its conception. This story, first published in Paris Review and winner of several prizes last year, is already famous and may become as emblematic of the Iraq war as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is of Vietnam or Walt Whitman's poem 'Come Up From the Fields, Father' is of the Civil War. What makes it different, though, is that it deals neither with the soldiers nor with parents who have lost sons, but with the next generation, the sons of those called up to fight from the National Guard in the small fictional town of Tumalo. As the narrator, Josh, says: 'In March they shipped off for Iraq. Our fathers—our coaches, our teachers, our barbers, our cooks, our gas-station attendants and UPS deliverymen and deputies and firemen and mechanics—our fathers, so many of them, climbed onto the olive green school buses and pressed their palms to the windows and gave us the bravest, most hopeful smiles you can imagine, and vanished. Just like that.' The boys make contact with their fathers through e-mail, and find themselves pushing their refresh buttons, often in vain. Thus, 'Our fathers haunted us. . . . Our fathers, who had been taken from us, were everywhere, at every turn, imprisoning us.' Before long, almost as a way of identifying with their lost fathers, the boys are impelled to commit their own kind of violence, and their target becomes the recruitment officer. This devastating story plays out in surprising yet utterly convincing ways, and in it you get a glimpse of what life is like not only in the high desert of Oregon (where Percy was brought up), but in rural towns all over this country—where life chugs along in a kind of orderly boredom and people spend their leisure time in the wild, hunting and fishing . . . Percy is a talented writer whose best work already achieves an astonishing intensity. One can only hope that when this war finally ends, he will turn his eye outward and give us fiction that has wider breadth and all the compassion he shows in his finest stories. In the last story, 'When the Bear Came,' he seems to be telling us he knows this. Anyone interested in fresh American fiction will be awaiting his next work with great anticipation."—Roberta Silman, The Boston Globe

"Benjamin Percy, raised in the high desert country of central Oregon, plants his stories in these familiar settings on the outer edges of civilization, weaving dreamlike scenarios sometimes nightmarish, sometimes merely challenging. Raw, archetypal and bloody, the 10 shorts in Refresh, Refresh could be described as literary horror. In each, Percy capably captures not only the rough cowboy texture of volcanic wilderness, where pockets of something close to real frontier still exist, but also does an amazing job revealing interior landscapes, making us look at what we don't want to know about ourselves . . . The heart of each story is an aggregate of molten lava formed around a desperate hope for love, life and happiness . . . Percy, who now lives and teaches in Wisconsin, raises uncomfortable questions with his characters and situations. Why not murder your daughter's abusive boyfriend? But will that save your daughter? Why not kill your brother? But will that get you his wife? Why not kill a bear, a deer, yourself? Do we create our own monsters, manifesting them from inner turmoil? Are monsters just a fact of nature, both inner and outer? How do we find our way back to civilization? Something foreboding always seems to get in the way. In the Ochoco Mountains on a trip that promises to bring reconciliation, a young man out hunting with his father becomes increasingly uneasy. 'I began to feel very small and vulnerable on this dark game trail, a piece of meat among the shadowy trees.' An indefinable being is stalking them, turning the tables against the hunters, until even the detached father must admit his fear. In another tale, a mad bear comes out of the woods, mauling teenage girls on a campout. Overcome by fear, the whole town seems to develop a bloodlust for bears, and a young man determined to face this bear finally gets his wish—an apparently mystical interaction with a creature beyond human ken. Each of these dark tales fascinated and in some way horrified me. Perfect reading for autumn as blue sky transforms into an immense gray lid that hovers above the Earth, threatening to squash. Spot on in our time of war on terror."—Alice Evans, The Oregonian (Portland)
"Full of bravery and bravado, it fairly crackles with life. These stories mark the beginning of a long and brilliant career."—Ann Patchett
"Benjamin Percy moves instinctively toward the molten center of contemporary writing, the place where genre fiction, in this case horror, overflows its boundaries and becomes something dark and grand and percipient. These stories contain a brutal power and are radiant with pain—only a writer of surpassing honesty and directness could lead us here."—Peter Straub

"Ten stories about otherwise ordinary lives haunted by violence and death—Percy's second collection, following The Language of Elk. All the stories are set in the high desert country of central Oregon; the harsh landscape defines the characters. The men are hunters and raise their sons to hunt, not always successfully. In 'The Woods,' Justin resents his father for the hunting lessons; years later, on a scary hunting trip involving two mysterious corpses, roles are reversed as son consoles fearful father. Josh and Gordon, high-school students in the prize-winning title story, love to hunt deer, but their fathers, National Guard reservists, have left for Iraq. In a story that pulses with violence, the local army recruiter is the bad guy. Memories of killing Iraqis surface in 'Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This' and 'Meltdown'; Stephen and Darren, in almost identical circumstances, killed Iraqis at point-blank range . . . In two stories, 'The Caves in Oregon' and 'The Faulty Builder,' death happens in the womb, with troubling consequences for two married couples. Less troubling for Jim, the lonely old hunter and taxidermist in 'The Killing,' is shooting his daughter's abusive boyfriend: 'His entire adult life he has been surrounded by dead things.' Another lonely old man, Gerald, has always lusted after his brother's wife ('Whisper') . . . Blood swirls through these stories. Even a blackberry pie looks 'a little like congealed blood,' so it's no surprise that Joey, the young dairy farmer in 'Crash,' considering suicide after his wife's accidental death, visualizes the blood pouring out of him. Percy does well by his trapped, uncomprehending men."—Kirkus Reviews

"The title story in Percy's collection won the Plimpton and Pushcart prizes and was anthologized in Best American Short Stories of 2006, and justly so. In it, the small town of Tumalo, Oregon, loses its coaches, teachers, barbers, and cooks when the army deploys a batallion of part-time soldiers to Iraq. Two of the men's sons, still reeling from their fathers' departure, spend the time boxing as a way to alleviate stress, anxiously awaiting their fathers' communiqués by e-mail. The other stories, also set in rural Oregon at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, all carry a similar thread of emotional desperation. And that pain is inevitably mirrored in a threatening landscape, which here, in one viscerally rendered story after another, includes a mad bear, an eerie underground cave, and a dangerous hail storm. In one of the most boldly envisioned stories, 'Meltdown,' a nuclear accident has left Oregon a dead zone, unpopulated save for renegades like Darren. He drives down deserted, ash-covered streets because 'living with ghosts feels more like a victory, somehow.' These are hard-hitting stories from a writer to watch."—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

"Percy's second collection traces lives led in rural Oregon's fractured, mostly poor communities. The title story (selected for The Best American Short Stories 2006), presents Josh, a young man from small-town Tumalo who watches as men who signed up as Marine reservists for beer pay leave to fight in the Iraq War, including Josh's father. As Josh's unreliable first person details a deer hunt, the escapades of the town recruitment officer and the less-and-less frequent e-mails from his father, tension slowly builds. Set during a blackout, 'The Caves in Oregon' follows geology teacher Becca and her husband, Kevin, as they explore a network of caves beneath their home, grappling to understand each other in the wake of a miscarriage. 'Meltdown' imagines a nuclear disaster in November 2009, while the menacing 'Whisper' opens with the accidental late-life death of Jacob, leaving his brother, Gerald, to care for Jacob's stroke-impaired wife. Percy's talent for putting surprising characters in difficult contemporary settings makes this a memorable collection."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert of central Oregon. He currently teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Read the full excerpt


  • Benjamin Percy

  • Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert of central Oregon. He currently teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.