Summer reading: Benjamin Percy on Stephen King

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As summertime gets underway, we’ve created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles, being released in time for summer 2010.

At Jacket Copy, we’re asking writers and other bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Benjamin Percy, whose first novel, “The Wilding,” is coming from Graywolf Press in the fall, starts us off. Percy, who has published two collections of short fiction, has won a Whiting Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Plimpton Prize and has been included in Best American Short Stories. He teaches at Iowa State’s MFA program in creative writing and the environment and his writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Esquire and many other publications.


Jacket Copy: Do you recall reading a specific book or books during summer?

Benjamin Percy: I’m a glutton for summertime reading. I gorge myself on all of those titles that have accumulated on my desk -- the mile-high “to read” list -- a blend of burgers and broccoli, the books I want to read, the books I feel I ought to read.

When I think back on all of those summers sprawled out in a lawn chair with a book in my lap, there’s one title that stands out more than any other, not for the reasons you might expect. “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King.

JC: What year was it, or how old were you?

BP: I was 13 -- and about to change schools, about to leap from seventh to eighth grade. Thirteen is the worst year of anybody’s life, but I had an especially awful run. In trouble for fighting. In trouble for vandalism. In trouble for stealing. In trouble for grades. I remember my mother crying and running upstairs when I was suspended. I remember my father ripping up my report card and hurling the pieces across the room like the saddest sort of confetti, not saying a word, just staring at me with hooded eyes. They made the decision to pull me out, to put me in a different school with smaller classes and rougher discipline.

JC: Where were you?

BP: I lived in the country, in the nowhereland of sage flats and alfalfa fields that stretch between Bend and Redmond, Ore. Reading was an antidote to the isolation.

JC: What about the book was significant to you?

BP: Of course the plot grabbed me by my throat (which was pretty scrawny back then), but Roland was the real reason the book impacted me so profoundly. Roland of Gilead, the lead character, the titular gunslinger. This might seem ridiculous to some people -- but remember that I was 13 at the time, leaving one school and joining another 40 miles away. I can remember my parents telling me that the new school would change me -- that change was good, I needed to change -- and I agreed with them. I felt like a pitiful smear of human waste and was actively thinking to myself, who do I want to be?

Roland answered that question. He seemed the ultimate man. He lived by a knight’s code of honor. He withstood pain with gritted teeth. He was disciplined, knowledgeable, strong. He was in the pursuit of something important -- his presence in the world mattered. He was never the one to start a fight, but always the one left standing. He rarely spoke, but when he did, his words were wise and impactful. Silence, I came to understand, was knowing when to shut up. I became deeply reticent that summer -- and the silence lasted until I graduated from high school.

Some might have mistaken it for being shy, but it was something else: I was a strategist, holding back, judging every word, every action, trying to decide its merit. You see those kids with the WWJD wristbands? I should have had a special one made -- What would Roland do? I understand that this sounds horribly corny, but it’s true, and back then it mattered to me more than anything in the world. My grades sharpened. I became painfully serious, my face absent of expression. Sometimes I would lie in bed and chide myself for something I had said or done that seemed to me ill-becoming, and it was as though, in the shadows shifting on my ceiling, the shape of the Gunslinger was taking form.

JC: Have you re-read the book? If so, has it changed at all for you?

BP: I’ve read it more than any other book (“Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson and “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy take a close second and third). I’m still that little boy when I crack it open. But I’m a writer too, and I especially love the hybrid quality of the narrative -- it’s a western, it’s a fantasy, it’s a horror novel, and it brings to mind, too, legends of knights rattling their swords in battle, following a chivalrous code.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

BP: My father (with some help from me, though a teenager isn’t worth much with a hammer) built the house we lived in then, up on a hill along the Old Bend Redmond Highway. But after I left for college, they sold it and lit out for Portland. So when I go home to see them, I never feel like I’m actually going home. I have returned to central Oregon several times, and each time, I drive past the house and feel a blend of nostalgia ... and gratitude that I’m no longer that skinny-armed punk toting a BB gun and a bad attitude.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Benjamin Percy. Credit: Jennifer May

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