Why Benjamin Percy Loves “The Hunter’s Wife”

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.

ben-percy.jpg“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.”

shell-collector.jpgI have quite frankly had enough of these stories where a woman makes tea in her kitchen, where a man goes to the grocery store and aimlessly wanders its aisles, where over dinner they take tiny bites of lemon basil chicken and speak to each other without really speaking to each other. Throw in a sick kid and a bleak epiphany, and bam, we’re done. Essentially nothing happens.

In Doerr’s fiction, stuff happens. He never forgets that a reader is ultimately interested in this question: what happens next?

So blizzards come howling down from the mountains, a magician saws his young female assistant in half, a hunter fires arrow after arrow into a pack of half-starved coyotes, a mysterious dinner party reunites estranged lovers.

And there is magic. Every time the hunter’s wife touches something—a slumbering grizzly, a heron frozen in lake-water, a tangle of garter snakes coiled beneath a rock—”her eyes rolled back and its visions, its heaven, went shivering through her body.”

Consider this scene where a blood-soaked deer lies dying in the snow. She places a hand on its still-warm foreleg: “Already the doe’s vision was surging through her body—fifty deer wading a sparking brook, their bellies in the current, craning their necks to pull leaves from overhanging alders, light pouring around their bodies, a buck raising its antlered head like a king. A silver bead of water hung from its muzzle, caught the sun, and fell.”

As you can see, Doerr knows how to turn a sentence, and his language is often as fierce and mystical as the Montana wilderness that serves as his backdrop. What’s more, his characters are rendered with a knotty authenticity. And with the introduction of the fantastic, he examines the raw and startling power of love through a fresh lens. I could go on, but it comes down to this: the story is beautiful. No other word for it. Beautiful.

And I hate Doerr for it.

1 July 2006 | selling shorts |