The stories of Refresh, Refresh are almost painfully masculine. They are violent and harsh and hurt. But the masculinity of Percy’s book is not self-celebratory in the least. Instead, Percy mines the mentality of woodsmen and the determination of hunters to mirror a bigger fascination—a national fascination—with a type of masculinity that subverts one pain by inflicting another.
The book opens with the title story, in which the town of Tumalo, Oregon is devastated when the bulk of their husbands and fathers ship off to Iraq from the nearby National Guard station. The teenage narrator and his friend box in a backyard to toughen each other up—to help the scrawny friend combat bullies, and to help the narrator battle worry over his father. In the end, they take their anger out on the closest manifestation of the war they can, the recruiter who delivers news of dead soldiers to the families of Tumalo.
It is, without a doubt, a politically charged way to start the book, but for the most part—excluding a story that takes place in a post-meltdown northwest in 2009—that is as overt as Percy gets about politics, or about his characters’ ties to the global violence of war. Instead, the men in these stories are facing types of violence often out of their control. “The Caves of Oregon” shows a couple wandering into a natural cave under their house, hoping to heal themselves of the tragedies they can’t get past. The abandoned young man in “When the Bear Came” hopes to expel his rage by killing a bear that attacked some girls at a camp site. A depressed husband in “The Faulty Builder” drives head-on into a storm, against his wife’s pleas, with disastrous results. In these stories the characters are often denied the satisfactions they seek, and are either confronted with another truth to face, or left to stare into the empty space their hopes once occupied.
In other stories, Percy explores things much more sinister. What makes the book so successful, both story to story and as a whole, is Percy’s willingness to take us to places that are terribly uncomfortable. The forcefully lecherous old man in “The Whisper” is not only unlikable, he is downright detestable. He relates a history of sexual force, and that history comes back in all its violent confusion with his now dead brother’s wife. The story could be plainly revolting, but there is something tragic in the man’s plain misunderstanding of his manhood. He is blind to the consequences of his actions, knows only the sensation of what he does, and he becomes an extreme example of the laconic, reality-fleeing man.
The men who populatethis book drink or hunt or go off to war or imagine their houses aflame around them, anything to escape their deeply ingrained hurt. Percy never once panders to them, never relieves them of their responsibility or agency, never makes their suffering romantic or sentimental in the least. Rather, he makes them answer for what they’ve done, face what tragedies they’ve survived. Percy cares for these men, and wants them to break out of the violence inherent in their the nature, wants them to stop their evasive sternness. But he also knows some of them are too far gone to save.
Also impressive is Percy’s use of genre to create tension. “The Woods” is, at its core, a horror story, as a father and son search for an animal that leaves a trail of dead bodies, only to find out that what they’re searching for may not be an animal at all. But it is also a story about repairing rifts created over time, and about knowing when to let things go. It is a nice twist on the father-son hunting trip, in the same way other stories start as adventure, or as mystery, and then veer off into something more probing of the human condition.
The stories in Refresh, Refresh are brave and fresh and scary. They’re scary because they feel so real, so close to the cycles of our own lives. You may not live in the Pacific Northwest, may not hunt, may not have seen great personal tragedy. But there is something universally relatable and troubling—particularly now, with the country’s political and social climate—in reading about people enduring great loss by causing more loss. It could be physical violence, self-inflicted violence, sexual violence, or psychological violence. In any permutation, the pain inflicted in these stories is done so as an evasive measure. Hurt is caused to avoid the problems at hand.
The men in these stories, at least partially, reflect a much larger struggle with how we deal with loss. And it is the stark honesty with which Percy approaches these themes that makes these stories so harrowing, and so damn good.