Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2010. 288 pages. $23.00.
In the tradition of Deliverance—and with an epigraph from the same—comes Benjamin Percy’s tense debut novel, The Wilding. Like James Dickey’s classic, this is a story about men adventuring through a menacing wilderness—in this case Echo Canyon, a rugged Oregonian woodland slated for razing, for residential development, for golf. Percy’s adventurers are a family, three generations of men making one last hunting trip to these woods, carting emotional baggage along with their camping gear—a move that nicely ratchets up the tension buzzing from the opening page.
The narrative alternates between several points of view, but the backbone of the book is Justin Caves, a Starbucks-loving schoolteacher condemned as “tame” by his wife, and by the book itself. Justin has long suffered the taunts and not-so-subtle contempt of his father, Paul, a blue-collar business owner who shoots arrows into artificial deer and bathes naked on the banks of icy streams—“the kind of father who enjoys saying things like, ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’” The narrative action begins when Paul suggests they take Graham (Justin’s son, Paul’s grandson) into the woods to make a man of him. Paul gives the boy a rifle over Justin’s meek objections and ignores the growing signs they are being stalked by something terrible—an old grizzly bear that has wandered south into these woods.
But the bear isn’t the only one watching from the dark. The most interesting turn in Percy’s novel occurs back in civilization, where Justin’s wife, Karen, is enjoying a weekend alone and flirting with marital infidelity. She is unaware that outside of her window—occasionally even hiding in the shadowed corners of her rooms—is Brian, a hair-covered would-be Sasquatch. Brian is Percy’s most generously rendered character, a veteran of Iraq who suffered a brain injury in a roadside bomb and went from socially awkward to flat-out disturbed. He wears a suit made of animal pelts, a bizarre comfort blanket that gives him the confidence to sneak around after Karen, with whom he has become obsessed. This unexpected parallel stalking adds some wonderful complexity when the novel needs it most.
Percy is at his finest when he’s in the woods. Echo Canyon is described with a specificity that can only come from a writer who loves his subject:
Boo [the dog] climbs onto a scarred jawbone of a rock and drinks messily from the river
before sniffing at its muddy banks where the tracks of a toad shorten and then vanish,
surrounded by the fern-like impression of wings, where an owl swooped down to make its
Percy’s mastery of description and plotting earn the reader’s trust, which he repays with a climax that is worth the time spent to get there. But the author’s reluctance to probe the wilderness of his characters’ inner lives keeps The Wilding from achieving its full potential. Karen’s psychology goes virtually unexplored—her marital angst is presented as a symptom of grief over a recent miscarriage, fed by steadily festering contempt for both Justin’s tameness and Paul’s wildness. We see her as happy to have her family gone, but she ignores the difficult questions raised by her brush with infidelity. Percy’s narrative is complicit in this avoidance, depriving us of Karen’s narration just when we’d most like to see what’s in her head. As such, when Justin asserts (in a too-tidy epilogue) that things are “good” between them, it is hard to believe.
Percy’s reluctance to delve deeply into the conflict between Justin and Paul, the latter having exposed them all to horrible danger, also dampens the novel’s dramatic payoff. The closest they come to a confrontation is a grunting and inarticulate fistfight on the banks of a river that starts almost by accident and ends just as ambiguously. There is no better occasion for fiction than the moment when our difficulty communicating breaks down, or is overcome. But by the end of The Wilding, Paul and Justin are stuck where they began. Paul is about to tromp off into the woods to kill the bear, and Justin is “entirely out of conversation.” Just when the promise of darkness and complication between the father and son comes most naturally—something potentially really scary—Percy flinches.