What Can We Steal From Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Writs of Possession,” short story
Author: Benjamin Percy
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. As of this writing, the story can be found here. The piece was also included in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
The crisis that crippled the housing market wasn’t fun for anyone. That includes the officials tasked with evicting homeowners in foreclosure and supervising the repossession of property. Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession” is a story told in nine vignettes, each with a different focal character. (Aside from the first and ninth sections, that is. Percy brings the story full circle by returning to Sammy, a woman from the Sheriff’s office.) Switching through perspectives allows Percy to explore difference facets of the situation in an interesting manner. Here’s what each vignette is about:
- SAMMY – Percy introduces a Sheriff’s deputy who is evicting an old, infirm man who has episodes that make him feel as though he is dying.
- JOHN – The poor guy’s marriage is falling apart. He’s on a thirty-day furlough and is fixing up his house a little to keep his mind off of his problems.
- BROTHER AND SISTER – These two young people move from empty home to empty home, squatting (and stealing) until someone notices them. The homeowner returns, but is so lonely that he asks them to stay.
- MR. PETERSON – His house in one of those terrible homeowner association neighborhoods is up for sale for $700,000. It doesn’t sell, so he tries to get out at $400,000. The homeowner’s association promptly burns the place to the ground because of their perceived loss of property value.
- BRENT – His TV is being repossessed. Brent wants to pay, but lost his job months ago and simply can’t do so. He throws a beer bottle into the screen as the men take it away.
- LITTLE BOY – Ugh, so sad. A little boy overhears that he and his mother are “going into foreclosure.” So he draws a boat to “carry them away to foreclosure.”
- AN EMPTY HOME – The home is in one of those neighborhoods that was growing furiously until the builders simply stopped throwing good money after bad.
- GERTIE – The old woman was tricked into taking out a reverse mortgage. The home is being repossessed. She shoots herself with her dead husband’s gun.
- SAMMY – Sammy is about to evict Gertie when she hears a shot and confronts the sad event with muted emotions.
By presenting a number of different slices of different lives, Mr. Percy tells a much larger story than fourteen pages might otherwise contain. The narrator buzzes around a wide swath of humanity, accomplishing more than if Mr. Percy had stuck with Sammy the whole time. What a graceful and felicitous way to deal with writing such a big topic!
What Should We Steal?
- Tell big, complicated stories in a big and complicated way. No short story could ever truly capture all of the emotions involved in a situation as vast as what happened when the American real estate market crumbled. Mr. Percy gets very close by considering as many of those emotions as possible and demonstrating how different people deal with them.
- Handle societal issues by making use of a wide range of people in that society. Victor Hugo did this in Les Miserables. Instead of focusing only on the students, Hugo also dealt with paupers and whores and reformed criminals and devout policemen and businessmen. Mr. Percy measures the human cost of the crisis by introducing the reader to a number of humans who are dealing with it.