Ten stories about otherwise ordinary lives haunted by violence and death—Percy’s second collection, following The Language of Elk (2006).
All the stories are set in the high desert country of central Oregon; the harsh landscape defines the characters. The men are hunters and raise their sons to hunt, not always successfully. In “The Woods,” Justin resents his father for the hunting lessons; years later, on a scary hunting trip involving two mysterious corpses, roles are reversed as son consoles fearful father. Josh and Gordon, high-school students in the prize-winning title story, love to hunt deer, but their fathers, National Guard reservists, have left for Iraq. In a story that pulses with violence, the local army recruiter is the bad guy. Memories of killing Iraqis surface in “Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This” and “Meltdown”; Stephen and Darren, in almost identical circumstances, killed Iraqis at point-blank range. The puzzle is why the latter, near-future story, a study of Darren’s anomie, needs the spectacular embellishment of a nuclear reactor meltdown. In two stories, “The Caves in Oregon” and “The Faulty Builder,” death happens in the womb, with troubling consequences for two married couples. Less troubling for Jim, the lonely old hunter and taxidermist in “The Killing,” is shooting his daughter’s abusive boyfriend: “His entire adult life he has been surrounded by dead things.” Another lonely old man, Gerald, has always lusted after his brother’s wife (“Whisper”). It’s unfortunate that this credible tale of sibling rivalry should take a sudden turn into melodrama. Blood swirls through these stories. Even a blackberry pie looks “a little like congealed blood,” so it’s no surprise that Joey, the young dairy farmer in “Crash,” considering suicide after his wife’s accidental death, visualizes the blood pouring out of him.
Percy does well by his trapped, uncomprehending men, but his endings are messy and inconclusive.