Books: The Wilding

…by Benjamin Percy.  In The Wilding, three generations of males enter a disappearing Oregon wilderness for one last outdoor weekend.  Echo Canyon, where Justin Cave and his father Paul have been hunting for many years, is about to be acquired and developed by encroaching suburbanites, so they want to bring young Graham along to see the place and to blood him into the manly ways of hunting and camping.  Of course the Caves have their issues.  Justin and Paul have been at odds over the elder’s domineering redneck simplicity for years, and Graham, a sixth-grader with early designs on writing computer software, is in dire need of some general wildness.  Yes, their male bonds are about to be tested, old wounds will be revisited.  Also, there’s a grizzly in the canyon.  A big one.

And so we have the canvas for Ben Percy’s debut novel.  Witness the dualities of nature and civilization, man and beast, known and unknowable.  It’s the kind of book that explores our evolving view of what was once the wilderness in precise, often stunning language.  The author’s talent for turning a phrase or metaphor and his obvious knowledge of the setting make for some first-rate reading.

The characters are familiar and approachable.  Again, built with skill and craft – a wry observation here, a poignant flashback there – you quickly get a sense for these east Oregonians.  Paul, Justin’s father, the consummate blue-collar hard-ass provides stubborn outdoorsy yin to Justin’s restrained and responsible yang.  Paul is the kind of dad who believes in tough lessons and hard work, but he also has some bully in him, and his refusal to accept the reality of their situation in the canyon adds to the general menace.  For his part, Justin is one of those nice passive types you’ve known for years at work.  The kind of guy who retreats from a potential argument and avoids conflict at all cost.  He’s intelligent, thoughtful, and seemingly incapable of decisive action.  While these traits add tension to the situation and make for some interesting father-son conflict, they may frustrate the reader as well.  ‘Do something, say something!  Anything!’ you might find yourself shouting at Justin as the pages go by.

The other narrative track details Justin’s wife, Karen, her infinite sadness, and Iraq War vet-cum-hairsuit wearing stalker, Brian.  Karen will likely annoy you.  She spends the entire story worrying, feeling sorry for herself, and demoralizing Justin (in person and via proxy).  While Karen has reason for some sadness – a recent miscarriage being the catalyst – she mostly seems to be railing against encroaching middle age and the general suburban malaise of paths not taken.

Enter Brian, a weird little locksmith and former infantry soldier, who came home after being hit with shrapnel in the desert.  Now sporting a third-eye-looking scar on his head and a notable lack of social sense, he becomes obsessed with Karen after helping her with a locked door.   Brian’s story may seem somewhat war veteran typical:  damaged guy who obviously had problems before the army can’t re-enter society after his tour and injuries.  It’s also deftly structured and accurate.  And strange.  Brian embarks on a dangerous stint of voyeurism that involves disguising himself in the animal skins he’s taken as a trapper.  The author does an admirable job of couching this particular quirk in background and characterization, and you begin to get the sense something spectacularly obscene and awful is going to happen.  I found myself enjoying Brian’s chapters more and more as the book continued.

Some of these sections with Brian, and other later scenes with Paul, Justin, and Graham moving deeper into grizzly territory truly highlight Ben Percy’s talent for descriptive frightening storytelling.  The pages will suck you in.  At the same time, I felt I sensed some restraint, a kind of literary tether if you will, preventing Percy from really pushing the limits.  The hints of the supernatural, the mythological overtones -they seemed to be straining against editorial shackles.  Perhaps this was why the climax and resolution of the two major storylines struck me as a little too safe.  Yes, the ending was realistic and plausibe and balanced.  But I was hoping for something more in the bizarro-memorable category.

This slight criticism aside, The Wilding is an excellent novel and certainly worth adding to your reading list.  And if you like this book, you should check out the author’s short story collection, Refresh, Refresh as well.  I am eagerly anticipating Percy’s next offering, wondering where he’ll take us.

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