Bottom of the Ninth, Percy on the Mound

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago marked the latest outing from Benjamin Percy, the prodigiously talented but uneven right-hander from Oregon. Would this season be the 34-year-old's big break?

Based on what he'd heard at the reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, Manager Joe Girardi said Percy had definitely uncorked some new stuff for the novel, Red Moon, though it seemed from comments on Facebook that the author wasn't entirely comfortable with his mechanics. At some stores the book sat in a cardboard kiosk beside Dan Brown's new release, and the back-page ad in The New Yorker seemed to shake the hard-throwing Brown graduate's otherwise incalculable confidence. Red Moon is about vampires.

“I’m encouraged,” Girardi said, commenting from behind a dais, where he was pouring wine for a long line of people who live in Manhattan. “Benjy's done some pretty good work. Sure, he hit a little rough spot. All that growling at readings, and those sideburns? But he’s overcome stuff like that, so there was nothing that led me to believe he wouldn’t come out of it again.”

In previous efforts, including two other novels and two story collections, command had been among Percy's biggest challenges. He tends to overthrow, which can cause his stories to crumble like a sand castle. Percy also tends to release sooner than he should, and the end result can feel like a piñata — hollow and filled with candy. Percy described these as “mistakes.”

In the past, he'd leaned too much on his trusty heater, like that time at a literary festival in Portland, after a reading, when he let loose some savage war cry or something like that, and made several undergrads cry. It was risky to focus on strength. Such is the razor-thin margin between a solid start and a potentially disastrous one.

“I can still get out of situations,” Percy said, wiping sweat from his brow, signing a fat stack of books.

It is a rare occasion, Girardi said, pouring chablis, when a writer has all his best stuff working. More often, he will need to make adjustments. Girardi cited George Saunders, who has a knack for surviving, even when he seems to lose his feel for weirdly robotic diction and the creepy teen-dream of future speak.

In Percy's case, Girardi said he might need to mix it up more, go easier on the blood and gore, for instance. The manager said he had no choice but to trust that Percy would know when to alter his approach. 

“You can try to enforce it, but the enforcer is standing up there with the pen in his own hand,” Girardi said. “It falls upon his shoulders.”

Percy agreed.

“I feel like I need to grind and battle,” he said, doodling an image of an axe on a cocktail napkin.

Reached on his fax line in Sacramento, William T. Vollmann declined to comment. David Foster-Wallace was dead. Jonathan Franzen was watching birds.

Sometimes, that's the way it works for an author: you try to be good enough, even if it feels like something essential is being squandered.


Nathan Deuel

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