The human cost of the Iraq war on the home front

The Baltimore Sun

Refresh, Refresh

By Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press / 250 pages / $15 paper

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.

Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, journalists have had the time to sift through the initial flurry of embed dispatches and the later immersion in violent insurgency to bring deeper analysis in books. Among the best are Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, a chilling account of the disconnect between the pampered civilians in the American enclave in Baghdad whose job it was to restructure the country and the cultures that surrounded them, and Martha Raddatz's clear-eyed The Long Road Home, which follows an Army platoon on a peacekeeping mission in April 2004 that ended in the massive and bloody battle of Sadr City, in which eight soldiers were killed and more than 60 wounded. Raddatz loops back to tell the stories of the families of those involved.

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.

At first, the narrator Josh's father e-mails him daily from Turkey. Then he is shipped to Kirkuk, "where insurgents and sandstorms attacked almost daily." Weeks of silence follow. Josh checks his e-mail obsessively. "Sometimes, on the computer, I would hit refresh, refresh, refresh, hoping," he notes.

Josh and his high school buddy Gordon push forward into manhood, spending hours fighting in the backyard with ancient cracked boxing gloves, their faces painted with camo-grease, taking on the warrior poses of their fathers who have vanished. They hunt deer, venture into bars, posing as Marines back from six-month deployments to attract women. Winter comes, and while the television streams images of the carnage created by Iraqi insurgents, Josh and Gordon fight in the snow. "Our fathers haunted us. ... We began to look like them. Our fathers, who have been taken from us, were everywhere, at every turn, imprisoning us."

Percy has a subtle understanding of the convoluted relationships between fathers and sons, and of men and women estranged from each other. In "The Caves in Oregon," a couple find a way to overcome the pain of a miscarriage by exploring the dark labyrinthine cave beneath their house.

Percy falters with the futuristic "Meltdown," which portrays the aftermath of a Chernobyl-type nuclear power plant disaster in Oregon, by drawing too obviously on Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Still, he brings something new to the material by shifting the viewpoint from father to son. The hero of this narrative is the son of the dead plant operator, an Iraq war veteran who returns to Oregon in 2014, five years after the disaster. He is there to police the "Dead Zone" around the still-burning radioactive site, riding a Harley Night Train along the mostly abandoned roads, a Geiger counter strapped to the handlebars.

Damaged by his Iraq war experience, he has deserted a girlfriend after tracing a circle along her spine and realizing he is thinking of it as a bull's-eye: "Here you put your knife if you want to paralyze someone."

The last story in the collection, "When the Bear Came," revolves around the image of a marauding bear, an apt symbol for the blurring of the boundaries between the savage and the civilized. It begins, "Nothing had happened in a long time. Every now and then someone wrecked a truck or got divorced or shot a six-point elk or dropped out of college or shipped off for Iraq." Then comes the news: "Girls camping in Dry Canyon got mauled by a bear." And the town mobilizes.

The narrator, who works at the town diner, has his own strategy. He attracts the animal with a bucket of food, records him with a Web camera, then heads out into the woods with his shotgun to track, lasso and kill the beast. After confronting the bear, and gradually acknowledging his own buried anger, even his fears, the narrator is allowed a smidgen of hope. "A low growl rumbled from deep in its throat. I could feel its eyes, like two heavy weights, on me. It was hungry. And I imagined what its jaws would feel like. ... We stayed like this for a time, looking at each other, each afraid and hateful. Minutes passed and the stars wheeled above us." The intimacy of this passage, with its mysterious transmission between human and beast, brings the story to a surprising resolution.

Here and throughout the collection, Percy displays a steely mastery as he explores and defines the unexpected dangers and fresh fears of this new century.

Jane Ciabattari, a short story author and freelance critic, wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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