Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon. A graduate of Brown and Southern Illinois University, he currently works as a visiting assistant professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. His debut collection of short stories, The Language of Elk, has just been published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He’s dropped in to tell us about one of his favorite short stories, from Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector.
“Fuck you, Doerr,” is what I say every time I read “The Hunter’s Wife.” My mouth presses into a frown. I shake my head back and forth until it feels loose on its hinges. I sweat. My breathing gets rapid and shallow. One time I threw his book across the room, where it slammed against the wall and fluttered to the floor like a broken-backed bird. Fuck him, I said. That lousy fuck.
And from me, that’s the highest kind of compliment.
These days, more often than not, I pick up a book and the running commentary in my head goes something like this: Quit starting your sentences with absolute phrases. Quit using exclamation marks as a crutch. Quit attaching adverbs to your dialogue tags (he said angrily). Quit mentioning what street you’re walking along in New York. Must you self-importantly capitalize words that shouldn’t be capitalized? Well, that metaphor went over like a lead tomato. Does anything happen in this story or is your character just going to contemplate his navel for the next twenty pages? Whatever happened to the fine art of the comma? Why are you wearing that ridiculous hat in your author photo? Will you stop using the word “float”?
Or—worst of all—why am I reading this?
It isn’t often that I crack open a story and feel profoundly jealous. There are a few exceptions. Anything by Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Yates. Most of what Rick Bass puts on the page. Some Denis Johnson. Those guys, I hate them even as I love them. I read and reread their sentences in a trance of wonder and know that no matter how good I get, I’ll never get quite that good, damn it.
That’s what happens when I read “The Hunter’s Wife.”
1 July 2006 | selling shorts |