Benjamin Percy speaks in a voice so low that it obscures some of the words coming through the telephone receiver and even though he's in Iowa and I've never met him, it's somewhat terrifying. It's the sort of grumble that could be used for one of those plastic Frankenstein monster door decorations that mumbles ghoulish phrases at trick or treaters. Percy sounds about eight feet tall and more like a professional wrestler - almost as baritone as Andre the Giant but twice as intelligible - than one of the nation's most promising young authors and one of Central Oregon's most famous native sons.
It's already past 10 o'clock on a Thursday night in Ames, Iowa, where Percy has just finished up a teaching a class at Iowa State University. The next morning he'll be flying out to France for the first time. Refresh, Refresh, his collection of short stories, is selling well there and now the author is heading out to promote the book. Percy, as he admits, is busy as hell and is still wrapping his head around the major book deal he just signed one-day prior. Add in the fact that his first novel, The Wilding, is hitting the streets a few weeks later (it was released on Tuesday) and it's tough to understand how Percy is functioning. Things are happening for him and he's not taking much for granted.
"I'm feeling very fortunate and very unworthy right now," says the 31-year-old Percy, "I feel certain that at any moment an anvil is going to fall out of the sky and land on my head or I'm going to get toe cancer or something. It's too good to be true."
The book deal he just signed is for what he describes as "the most commercial project I've ever undertaken," a horror novel along the lines of a Stephen King piece that capitalizes on the current cultural obsession with werewolves. That book, like The Wilding and the bulk of Percy's short fiction, is set in Central Oregon, the place where Percy grew up yet has only visited a few times since leaving the region for college. He attended Brown University and then studied writing at Southern Illinois University before establishing an academic career at Midwest universities - yet he still writes about Oregon. The way Percy looks at it, Faulkner had the South and Hawthorne had New England and he has the high desert of Oregon.
"When my mind opens up that trap door and the stories come rushing forward, they always take place with Central Oregon as the stage," says Percy.
The Wilding is a melding of five different interlocking and consistently menacing plot lines that focus largely on a father, son and grandfather who head out into the Ochoco Mountains for one last hunting trip in a canyon that will soon be bulldozed and replaced with a golf resort. The group encounters a grizzly on their trip while back at home the wife is menaced by a different kind of predator. Most of the story is set in Bend and includes the city's actual street names, schools, restaurants and topography - creating a strange sensation for local readers who may feel like these characters live next door. It's not quite set in the present day, but rather a few years ago when building was still running wild and the land grab for resort acreage was still going at full tilt. Through the narrative, Percy is harshly critical of the sprawl that's taken over the area where he grew up, a place he says that was hardly recognizable when he first came back to Bend a few years ago.
"I think the area is beautiful and I understand why people are moving there, but I wish they wouldn't," says Percy with a low, rumbling laugh.
This is how Percy describes the influx of building and urbanization that has taken over Bend in The Wilding.
He is talking about the network of streets growing ever wider and longer, forking off westward into the foothills and eastward into the desert, followed by telephone wires, their shadows lining the land like lines on music paper. He is talking about the ridges of condos, motels, and big-box stores. He is talking about how steadily, incessantly, juniper trees come down and houses spring up, houses with whirlpool tubs and granite counters and rugged pine columns flanking their doors, and among these houses, as if some massive pen has flung green ink, will appear a golf course, each green splash mowed in long perfect strips of light and dark turf, constantly irrigated so that the grass will not fade to the blighted yellow found naturally here.
It is a novel, after all, and the "he" in the passage is not a real person, but this description of Bend's sudden change seems parallel to the reality we've seen in Bend. Although created from afar, the version of Bend that Percy paints is markedly accurate, down to scenes in which developers bully for support at planning commission meetings and our residents' love of Subaru Outbacks.
Percy's childhood home - his parents have since moved to Portland - was on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway, providing him plenty of opportunities to venture into the woods alone and with family. He attended Obsidian Middle School in Redmond where he was constantly in trouble - fighting and vandalizing - and earning straight Cs.
"I was a punk. I would go back now and kick my own ass. I was a smear of human waste," says Percy of his childhood.
His parents transferred him to the now-defunct Sunriver Preparatory School where he thrived in a graduating class of about 14 students and earned the sort of grades that got him into an Ivy League school. But he wasn't a writer back then, other than penning a required-for-school story about Conan the Barbarian battling evil skateboarders. With images of Indiana Jones in mind, he planned to pursue a career in archeology. Still, teachers could see his creative spark.
"He always had this delightful sense of humor. It would sparkle out through everything," says Theresa Wadden, Percy's sophomore English teacher and college counselor at Sunriver Prep.
During summers in college, he returned to Eastern Oregon to participate in archeology digs, which he was studying at Brown. But while working at Glacier National Park, a girl he'd been writing love letters to told him he should be a writer. He took her advice - and also married her (Lisa) - shifting his focus to writing and went straight into the Southern Illinois University Master of Fine Arts program after wrapping up at Brown.
He's also published fiction and essays in Esquire, including recently when the magazine ran his hilarious short story about James Franco in which the actor/writer, among other things, gave himself a high five. With the success of Refresh, Refresh has come other opportunities, including a cinematic adaptation of the short story by the same name. The project, directed by James Ponsoldt, is about a young man in Central Oregon dealing with his father's deployment to Iraq and is set to begin filming in February around the Prineville area.
Percy would someday like to return to Oregon, though he's not sure how or when that will happen. He wants his two kids to have the sort of "wilderness background" he grew up with. In reality, Percy might never get back to the area. But one thing is be sure: whether it's about the Iraq ar or housing development or werewolves, Benjamin Percy is not going to stop writing about Central Oregon.
"I'm just trying to carve out a place for myself there," says Percy, the tone of his voice becoming no less daunting after half an hour. "It's the place my mind always retreats to."
Appearing at the Source Weekly Fiction Issue Reading.
6pm doors, 7pm reading. Monday, October 11.
The Nature of Words, 224 NW Oregon Ave.