In Benjamin Percy’s short story, “Refresh, Refresh,” Percy powerfully captures the urgency of a young, fatherless boy searching for his father: “[O]n this bike I could ride and ride and ride, away from here, up and over the Cascades, through the Willamette Valley, until I reached the ocean, where the broad black backs of whales regularly broke the surface of the water, and even further – farther still – until I caught up with the horizon, where my father would be waiting” (627). His use of alliteration is certainly literary, as is the vivid image he creates. The longing is palpable.
Percy’s ability to paint a picture continues throughout the story: “[S]unlight fell through tall pines and birch clusters and lay in puddles along the logging roads that wound past the hillsides packed with huckleberries and on the moraines where coyotes scurried, trying to flee from us and slipping, and causing tiny avalanches of loose rock” (631). The forest becomes a giant whisper. Beautiful. Regarding literary fiction, I think Percy fits the bill quite nicely.
However, his vulgarity and bad language reek of genre fiction (Stephen King comes to mind). “To eat my ass with” (631) along with, “I say we fuck with them a little” (632), “That cocksucker” (632), and the reference to “Jessica Robert’s big-ass titties”(633) are just some examples that could belong in a supermarket paperback.
However, Grossman points out that if an escapism aspect identifies genre fiction, then Benjamin Percy does not fit the bill for genre fiction. His short story is far from an escape. Grossman nailed it when he said, “When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply.” Percy allows the reader to re-encounter those problems like war, being fatherless, the confusion in growing up, and the violence we encounter every day, whether it is a schoolyard bully or the six-o’clock news. He allows the reader to feel the loneliness of a neglected wife and recognize the vultures waiting around every corner to take advantage of the character of Dave Lightener. But most of all, he leaves the reader feeling apathetic towards Gordon and the narrator as the reader watches their innocence erode enough until they go off to join the Marines.
From their dreaming of their fathers rescuing little Iraqi babies to joking about “killing some crazy-ass Muslims” (631), to the moment Gordon holds his finger on the trigger as he points at Seth, to the moment he leaves Seth’s tent with “a horrible smile on his face”(634), to the moment the narrator is edging Dave closer to the edge of death, Percy allows the horror to remain just beneath the surface. As a result, the story is not uneven but unsettled. And that is what good literary fiction does; it leaves the reader unsettled and contemplative.
Percy, Benjamin. “Refresh, Refresh.” Ed. Lorrie Moore. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2015. Print.
Grossman, Lev. “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology.” Time. 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2016