Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Language of Elk by Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy is another author that was invited to Bend for The Nature of Words last fall. I intended to read something by him then, but the library did not have his two collections of short stories at the time. They do now and The Language of Elk is well worth reading.

I think what Benjamin Percy does that is unique in his writing is to take a piece of Central Oregon that seems normal to people who live here and then add a twist. In the short story entitled, “The Iron Moth” Big Boy describes his hometown of Cairo, Oregon where he was a high school football star.
“Now rather than earning your tan, moving irrigation pipe and bucking hay bales into a pickup bed all afternoon, you get inside some capsule that glows like a bug-zapper and has about the same effect in frying you to a crisp. Now, every time I turn around there’s a new microbrewery or sushi joint or European car dealership, all of them springing up overnight like mushrooms.
Now, most everybody who lives here is from someplace else.”
Big Boy kills time with a friend by shooting anvils off the cinder cone in the center of town. Obviously, he is referring to Pilot Butte in Bend and it is quite a picture to imagine that going on in the center of town. The obvious discomfort and trouble for Big Boy to fit into his changing hometown are issues many people must deal with daily. I rarely meet anyone who identifies themself as a Bend native in my everyday life. I guess considering there were only 10,000 people here a decade ago and there are more than 75,000 now that is not too surprising.

Many of Percy’s stories bring up aspects of the local area that you might not think about or be exposed to if you just go about your daily life. There is the father and son in “Unearthed” who spend their time, after the death of the wife/mother, digging up Indian artifacts in the deserts of Eastern Oregon. That story takes a rather uncomfortable turn. The title story is set on a farm where hunters pay a fee to come in and shoot farmed elk. I recently read about a local ranch that does that. The characters that Percy draws are somehow sympathetic even while doing some unusual things.

I read the best story by Percy yet in the Fall 2007 issue of GlimmerTrain. I picked the journal up just to see what was in it and reading this short story reminded me of The Language of Elk that I had yet to read. The local paper here does a story about every other year on a family who has a house over a lava tube. It is always interesting to read and the family talks about using the natural cooling of the cave and having slumber parties in it. Percy takes this rather odd situation and turns it into a dramatic short story of a couple living over a lava tube in “The Caves in Oregon”. I also find it interesting that often the people in his short stories are professors at the local college, the woman in this story is a geology professor, or somehow connected.

I hope Percy puts his talents to use in writing a novel soon. I’m sure it would be entertaining and slightly edgy.

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