Thursday, August 12, 2010

"The Language of Elk" by Benjamin Percy

Near the beginning of the first story of Benjamin Percy’s first book, The Language of Elk, there is a scene so startling, so unexpected that, if you’re like me, you’ll do a spit-take of your morning coffee.  It’s like you were at a peace rally with Mahatma Gandhi and he suddenly walked up and kicked you in the nuts.  Percy’s prose is not necessarily that painful, but it will leave you gasping.

In “Unearthed,” a mother enters her son’s room. We’ve already been told she’s bipolar and strung out on a cocktail of Prozac and Lithium. But then…
And he remembered, finally, the night she shook him awake and said, “You know I love you, right?”  Somewhere between waking and dreaming, he saw her hovering above him in the dark and he said, “Yeah, Mom.  Love you, too.”  She left him then and he lay there, still tangled in his dreams’ cobwebs, realizing too late—after he tossed away the covers, after he hurried down the hall, down the stairs, after he heard the snap of the rifle—that something was wrong.
She left him a red carnation of brain matter on the wall, and on the kitchen table she left him a letter, its handwriting so sharp and hurried it reminded him of barbed wire.  “I’m so sorry,” it read.  “And I know that doesn’t mean anything.  I know that’s just a bunch of shitty words.  But I’m really truly sorry.”
There are a lot of good things at work in those two paragraphs—elements of style that, in your hurry to get to the next word, you might bypass the first time you read them.  There’s the sensory detail of being wrapped in dream cobwebs, then there’s the tumbling action set off by the hyphens which culminates in that chilling “snap of the rifle,” and the sinking-stomach conclusion of “something was wrong.”

Then we jump over the horrible event itself—Percy doesn’t even give us the sound of the shot—and we’re presented with that “red carnation of brain matter” and the handwriting that resembles barbed wire.  Not only are those finely-crafted images, they’re also freighted with symbolism: funereal flowers and an indication of the way the mother (with the equally-telling name of Misty) fenced herself off from the rest of the family.

This scene comes on the third page of The Language of Elk. You still have 181 more to go.

If I tell you that “Unearthed” was probably my least favorite story in the collection, then you might begin to get some sense of how much I loved this book.  Benjamin Percy proves to be a nut-kicker at least once every ten pages.

I’m big.  They call me Big Boy.  Back in the heydays, some ten years ago, I was the star linebacker for the Mountain View Mountain Lions.  I am six-foot-five, two hundred sixty pounds, with hands the size of T-bone steaks.  Without much effort I can throw people around like cloth dolls, and I did.
I’m not proud of this but one time I hit my buddy Barney so hard his eye popped out.  No kidding.  This happened during practice, during a blitz drill, and I remember his eyeball hanging there by a red thread.  Somehow we managed to shove it back inside him.  I said, “Are you all right? Can you see?” and he blinked a few times before giving the thumbs up.
“As clear as mud,” he said.  To this day his left eye wanders as if possessed by its own strange life.
--“The Iron Moth”

There was a stretch of highway, just outside Sisters, Oregon, where semis—with their engines roaring, their grills gleaming silver—came rumbling down from the Cascade Mountains, a long steep descent, and slammed into deer, dragging them sometimes thirty feet, tearing them open.
--“Winter’s Trappings”

In that one opening sentence, notice how Percy uses the comma and hyphen to great effect. Rhythmically speaking, the sentence moves like the semis: rolling slowly as it goes downhill, gathering speed, until it smacks into that word “slammed.”

And Percy is funny.  He’s damned funny.  For example:
I have been searching for years.  I have seen the footprints, the rough reddish hair, the plum-sized piece of poop.  I have heard his sad sweet cries rising from deep in the woods.  Bigfoot exists.  Believe me, believe it, and know that I am this close to proving it.
All I need is a body.
My wife of three years, Heidi, she is beginning to believe.  At first she was all yeah right.  We would argue six days to Sunday.  Then I showed her the poop.  She has since changed her tune, I think.

Or this moment in a story about a love triangle involving a bucktoothed best friend and a Bearded Lady. The narrator, smitten with the BL, catches his friend and would-be lover in flagrante delicto and a fight ensues.
What happened next I would never have guessed.  George came after me.  He was naked save for a pair of white tube-socks.  His gonad stood at attention.  I thought he would stab me with it.  I dodged him and brought my fist to his mouth.  His teeth cut me to the bone.  I still bear scars.
I believe he meant to kill me.
Again he charged, scepter at the fore.  Fighting a naked man is not difficult.  This time I tripped him.  He fell upon himself.  There was a sound not unlike the snap of a bite of celery.  I will not go into the details, but know this: George will never be the same man.
--“The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight”

(Men, I don’t know about you, but that celery snap made me double over and clutch myself.)

More than just a fine stylist, however, Benjamin Percy is a writer who goes right to the heart of his characters, and he does it with an economy of language as arrow-sharp as Raymond Carver, for instance, or Ernest Hemingway, or Richard Ford.  Percy belongs on the same shelf as those titans of the short form.

These stories are funny, compact, stunning, and have the capacity to break your heart—particularly the story which closes the collection, “Swans,” in which a pudgy teenage boy pines after a squad of high school cheerleaders, secretly watching them while floating at eye-level in a secluded lake where they like to sunbathe.  He only makes himself known when he rises to defend the girls against a flock of intruding swans.  Without giving too much away, let me just say that the final image of the book is one of heart-splitting beauty.

Don’t get me wrong—the stories in The Language of Elk aren’t so Teflon-coated that they aren’t without a couple of flaws.  In his laziest moments, Percy lets a few clichés slip through and some of the weirdest moments seem thrown into the stories just for the sake of being weird.  But it’s easy to spot the problems because they’re surrounded by so much that he gets right.  They are, you might say, plum-sized pieces of poop in a field of diamonds.

Percy writes of love, pain, loyalty, and betrayal in a clear, crackling voice that invigorates the short story genre.  His tales—all of them set in rural Oregon—go to dark, sweet places of the imagination and when he takes us there with him we hear a new music that prickles the skin—a sound that’s as beautiful and odd and haunting as the language of elk in the titular story: the full-throated bugles that roll off the Cascade Mountains and make grown men shiver.


  1. I just added this one & Refresh, Refresh on my Bookmooch wishlist so hopefully I will get to read this author's work quite soon; he sounds amazing. On a slightly different style perhaps, I highly recommend the short story collection Poachers by Tom Franklin. Read it a few years back and I still remember many of the paragraphs; very well written.

  2. Hope you enjoy Benjamin Percy's stories as much as I did.

    And, as it turns out, "Poachers" is the next book in my To-Be-Read stack. I've heard very good things about Tom Franklin.