From Publishers Weekly
Percy’s second collection (following last year’s The Language of Elk ) traces lives led in rural Oregon’s fractured, mostly poor communities. The title story (selected for The Best American Short Stories 2006 ), presents Josh, a young man from small-town Tumalo who watches as men who signed up as Marine reservists for beer pay leave to fight in the Iraq War, including Josh’s father. As Josh’s unreliable first person details a deer hunt, the escapades of the town recruitment officer and the less-and-less frequent e-mails from his father, tension slowly builds. Set during a blackout, The Caves in Oregon follows geology teacher Becca and her husband, Kevin, as they explore a network of caves beneath their home, grappling to understand each other in the wake of a miscarriage. Meltdown imagines a nuclear disaster in November 2009, while the menacing Whisper opens with the accidental late-life death of Jacob, leaving his brother, Gerald, to care for Jacob’s stroke-impaired wife. Percy’s talent for putting surprising characters in difficult contemporary settings makes this a memorable collection.
The title story in Percy’s collection won the Plimpton and Pushcart prizes and was anthologized in Best American Short Stories of 2006, and justly so. In it, the small town of Tumalo, Oregon, loses its coaches, teachers, barbers, and cooks when the army deploys a batallion of part-time soldiers to Iraq. Two of the men’s sons, still reeling from their fathers’ departure, spend the time boxing as a way to alleviate stress, anxiously awaiting their fathers’ communiqués by e-mail. The other stories, also set in rural Oregon at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, all carry a similar thread of emotional desperation. And that pain is inevitably mirrored in a threatening landscape, which here, in one viscerally rendered story after another, includes a mad bear, an eerie underground cave, and a dangerous hail storm. In one of the most boldly envisioned stories, “Meltdown,” a nuclear accident has left Oregon a dead zone, unpopulated save for renegades like Darren. He drives down deserted, ash-covered streets because “living with ghosts feels more like a victory, somehow.” These are hard-hitting stories from a writer to watch. Wilkinson, Joanne.