February 2nd, 2011 / 2:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: A Review of Benjamin Percy’s “The Red Balloon”

I was a lazy reader. I read too much too quickly into the title of Benamin Percy’s story “the Red Balloon.” “Balloon… Balloon… Barthleme. Ripoff,” was the thinking. I grabbed a friend. “Sit down,” I told him. “Tell me what this reminds you of.”

He sat down.

“Remember, it’s called ‘the Red Balloon.’ Keep that in mind. Okay. It’s important. ‘The Red Balloon.’”

I read the first couple sentences for the first time:

“No one knows where it came from. Some say a long car pulled up to the gas station and from it stepped a black haired, black-eyed man in a black suit, who coughed once into his fist and then gripped the pump and muddied it with his phlegm.”

My friend said, “I don’t know who that sounds like.”

I decided I’d better read the whole piece before assuming its contents.

It’s nothing like the Barthleme story of a somewhat similar name, of course. If there are any similarities, it’s that something strange comes to town. In Don B, it’s the balloon itself. In Percy it’s an Armageddon sickness. Both disrupt a city, change lives, change the mental landscape of the place, but where the [not-red] Balloon is a delight to children, beloved by the populace generally, and removed to West Virginia by story’s end, the red balloon is one woman’s only hope for companionship in a town otherwise waiting to kill her out of spite. Likewise, it is a call to action to Hank Haines, the town’s deputy sheriff.

Sara, the thirty-something woman who looses the red balloon, and Hank, happily, have more in common than this story and that other. Both are dreamers. Pre-disease, she wrote knights and maiden fantasy novels in the same bedroom she grew up in, while he experienced delusions of heroism. As the disease turns the surviving townsfolk into hateful, psuedo-zombies, the setting slowly comes into focus as the perfect stage for the acting out of their Romantic fantasies.

“The Red Balloon” is deftly paced. While there are characters, and they have names, and you care about them, the story moves through them as if in montage, a montage of cinematic, narrative bursts. The quickness and precision of the prose is on display in the following passage, in which a pack of dogs, no longer fed by their diseased and dead owners, start feeding on the dead and the weak:

“The day is windy. Newspapers flutter in the street like wounded birds. Beer cans rattle in the gutter. Tara wanders into the park and climbs onto a swing and absently kicks her legs. This is where the dogs find her. There are ten of them. Labradors and boxers and Dobermans and German shepherds, even a toy poodle. They slink toward her with their tails and ears flattened. She watches them come and begins to scream in concert with their howling when, in a knot, they encircle her.”

Tara Singer is a minor character—in a way they’re all minor, this cast is all chorus with no real solos—but when she is eaten, River Falls enters a new level of hell. Segments earlier, as Tara wanders unfeelingly through the world, there is still hope, but with her dies the last of it. Likewise, a nondescript band of survivors dies in the mountains because of contaminated bedding. Every thought of survival evaporates. The non-dead townsfolk, faces covered by Halloween masks in the belief Frankenstein will prevent the plague, patrol the streets, spitting at the well and trying to infect them.

With the disease spreads a second plague of dehumanization. Society crumbles. The sheriff goes crazy on energy drinks, and Sara, in solitary confinement with the corpses of her parents, starves through twenty pounds. With the death of little Tara Smith and the community in the cave, Sara and Hank are the only two people left uninfected, but they are separated.   When Sara releases her red balloon with note attached, she does so not out of hunger or fear, but in the hopes of companionship. Because she is immune to the disease, she has been barricaded into her home, and all she wants is someone else as exceptional.

Her note is exactly the damsel-in-distress flare Hank needed for activation. His hero glands ramp up. Throughout the sweep of the plague, he’d been unable to help. His glock found no targets, and with everyone suspicious of everyone else, no one was willing to be saved. Finding the red balloon, “he begins to think maybe, just maybe, he can set off for town, with his pistol ready and his eyes narrowed for danger, to seek out this woman, Sara, and make a difference after all.”

Percy leaves us on the doorstep of that fool’s quest. As Armageddon literature tends to do, it paints a room of darkness and in it strikes a single match. He has her address, but will he find her place? Will he have enough bullets? Will the car run out of gas? What happens when they get to Eugene? Are they the only two without the disease? What happens when Hank gets sick? Though unanswered, these questions provide the mountains, the dragons, the pits of vipers, and evil sorcerors of Hank’s pending quest. It is their connection, that she transmits out and he plans to return, that keeps them human and offers hope in the face of certain, ugly death.

One Comment

  1. Eli Artichoke

      Ben Percy is one of my new favorite writers. Some of the stories in Refresh, Refresh were terrifying. I think my favorite was the one about the couple that lives above a cave. Either that, or the one about the old man who spies on his brother and sister-in-law through the scope of his loaded rifle. I’ve been meaning to read more of his stuff. I love literary horror. Thanks for this review.