The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

Posted: November 20, 2010 in Book Reviews
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In his short stories, Ben Percy writes characters who work blue collar jobs and live in working class towns.  The male characters do manly things—fishing, hunting, and other outdoorsmen activities—and respond to conflict like men are suppose to—by drinking beer or fighting.  But they’re never one-dimensional.  They have sensitive sides, they question their fathers—not necessarily in the open—and they doubt their own mentalities.  In order to adapt to this sort of predetermined idea of masculinity, they partake in acts of savagery or, depending on the opponent—say, an Alpha male, like one of their fathers—they react by submitting.  These testosterone-fueled occurrences mask the character’s underlying issues.

Percy continues to write about the male dynamic in his debut novel, The Wilding.  Set in and around Bend, Oregon, the novel weaves together the stories of three primary characters—including a fourth near the end—as personal and geographic landscapes continue to evolve in the new millennium.  This change, of course, is met with resistance from humans and from nature.

One of the focal characters—Brian, a locksmith who has returned from Iraq wounded both physically and emotionally—literally wears a mask and suit made from animal pelts in an attempt to feel powerful and invisible.  Because when he’s not wearing it—when he’s out at a bar in Portland with his war buddies, for example—he’s unable to “process friendship or love or any human desire except for want and not-want.”

He puts on this suit to stalk the only woman who can make him feel human—Karen, an athletic suburban mother who tries to distract herself from the malaise of an unhappy marriage by running long distances.  While Brian’s storyline is secondary in this novel, his struggle to readjust to civilian life, trying to forget the savagery of war, helps fully develop the book’s major theme of how little separates man from beast.  And his connection to Karen acts as a direct link to the primary story.

Which belongs to Justin—Karen’s husband—an English teacher who embarks on a hunting trip with his father, Paul, and son, Graham, on the eve of a major rezoning development in the forest where they’ve always camped.  While in woods, the three encounter problems that put a hamper on the trip, causing tensions to rise between them instead of them being allowed to enjoy each other’s company and the landscape surrounding them.

There are the run-ins with a local who’s upset about the impending destruction of the area.  He takes it out on them—with good reason, since Paul is heading the new rezoning project—by sabotaging their trip any way he can.  Paul’s health is in a state of decline, and out of stubbornness he refuses to leave the woods without scoring one final buck. But the most vital external conflict is that a rare grizzly is roaming these woods.  Reports of the bear attacking people have already surfaced, and because they don’t have the modern conveniences that will be available to the area once development commences—like cell phone signals—their family hunting trip turns into a feat of survival.

What makes the bear so significant is its association to the strain in Justin’s relationship with his dad.  The novel opens with a recounting of his most damaging childhood memory: at the age of twelve, his father ordered him to kill a wounded bear found in the ten acres of woods surrounding their home.  This anecdote becomes a metaphor, one that Karen’s quick to point out, for the relationship between father and son.  Justin has a tendency to do whatever his father tells him, even when reason and better judgment would suggest otherwise.

And now, on this hunting trip, Paul is trying to make a man out of Graham the same way he tried to with Justin.  Which Karen had expressed disapproval of prior to them leaving, since she finds Paul’s old school habits to be reckless.  She fears for Graham’s safety, and rightfully so, seeing as she recently miscarried hers and Justin’s daughter, adding to the strain of an already fragile marriage.  Justin wants to please her and to regain a sense of the union they once had, but on this trip after Graham tags his first deer, something grabs a hold of him:

Justin feels gripped by a reckless idea.  The darkness of the woods and the thrill of the hunt and the wildness of his father have torn away some protective seal inside him; he cannot control himself.  For a moment, just a moment, he forgets about his mortgage payment, his shaggy lawn, his Subaru and the groaning noise it makes when he turns left, his desk and the pile of ungraded papers waiting on it.  All of that has gone someplace else, replaced by an urge, a wildness.

The Wilding blends compelling storylines with emotionally significant themes, creating a richly layered novel that makes a reader care about its characters.  Percy’s able to seamlessly weave together the multiple narratives in powerful, yet elegant, prose without making the story seem contrived, forced, or overwritten.  If you’re looking for a solid book that follows the lives of the middle class—the blue-collar workers and the underpaid academics—working out real problems, then look no further; this is your book.

Graywolf Press
September 28, 2010
$23.00

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