Before beginning Benjamin Percy’s debut novel, The Wilding, it might help to know that Percy’s speaking voice is a gravelly baritone that—when reading his work aloud—descends to a hard granite basso profundo, almost to the point of sounding like a put-on. But you might also get that sense simply from the prose on the page, hewn as it seems from the rocky surface of a cliff face, even when it ascends to lyrical heights. In fact, it’s nigh impossible to imagine this story of nature confronted red in tooth and claw being told in any other way.
It’s a rare, beautiful thing for a writer’s voice to be married so well and thoroughly to his or her subject that the two become inextricable. David Foster Wallace’s involuted meanderings through consciousness in Infinite Jest told the story of our collective addiction to entertainment as effectively as the plot itself did, and the same goes for McCarthy’s wracked, ruined, but ultimately Biblical voice in The Road. Percy works the same kind of magic here. In The Wilding, we’re introduced to Justin, father to a bookish, 12-year-old son named Graham, husband to his wife Karen, whom he’s grown apart from since a miscarriage, and son to Paul, a bearded outdoorsman whose bravado and bullying cast a long shadow over Justin’s family. They live in Bend, Oregon, a city rapidly being eaten up by WalMarts and mini-malls, but still wild around the edges, and when development threatens the end of Echo Canyon (a favorite camping spot of Paul in Justin’s youth), Paul, Justin, and Graham decide to spend a final weekend there introducing Graham to hunting, his grandfather hoping to “make a man out of him.”
The plot will no doubt remind some of James Dickey’s Deliverance—Percy has in fact cited the book as his major inspiration for the work—but as well as the plot works to drive us ever forward into the wilderness (and into the interior wilderness explored tentatively by Karen, who’s left at home), there’s much more at work here, and it explodes through the language. The overall tone here is one of uneasy truce with the encroaching disorder and chaos of nature, the straightforward prose of Karen or Justin’s interior monologue interrupted and assaulted by the brutal basicness of nature. As Justin thinks back to lying in bed with Karen, seven months pregnant with Graham, he recalls an uncharacteristic prayer, something elevated, before the language is brought back to the blood and guts at the base of human experience: “He prayed nothing would ever harm him, that the boy would grow into a healthy, happy man. He hopes the prayer somehow imprinted itself into his bones and blood, like something Karen consumed, its nutrients broken down and filtered through a cord into Graham, helping him along even now.”
Karen’s own narrative splits apart in similar ways, as when she considers the damage already done to her body while out running. “When she thinks of the toxins built up inside of her from so many years of eating carelessly, of the resentment that has grown steadily over fifteen years of marriage, of the stretch marks and varicose veins that came from two pregnancies, only one of them fulfilled, she thinks the inside of her body must tell a story like a tree. Were she to break open a bone, perhaps it would look like the inside of a coffee mug—riddled with lines, stained with brown blotches.” This threat of violence that lingers in the language is slowly realized in the story itself as the camping trip begins to go horribly wrong, beginning with an encounter with a local angry enough at the impending development and interlopers like Justin and his ilk to break windows and threaten them, and winding ever closer to the very real threat of a giant grizzly bear stalking the three campers in the canyon.
The slow build of tension in Justin’s story (tension between him and his father, between him and his son, between the men and nature) is handled meticulously by Percy, and countered early on with a secondary plotline involving a locksmith named Brian who comes to Karen’s rescue when she’s locked out of her house on one of her daily runs. An Iraq war veteran, Brian is a dangerous, unhinged character dealing with PTSD and any number of other psychological scars from his childhood. He begins to stalk Karen, and the threat to her effectively carries the book through its first half before the storyline in the woods begins to take over. The push and pull of the various story arcs is one of the novel’s best features, and one that keeps the reader engaged throughout.
It’s not often that you find a book so well-balanced between the base needs of the audience for action, tension, and sheer plot and the more refined pleasures of underlying theme, elegant structure, and poetic language. The Wilding is the kind of book best eaten whole, torn off in big chunks and consumed fresh. Percy handles the characters nimbly, never letting Justin become just a yuppie wuss, nor his father just a rugged mountain man, nor Karen just a disaffected housewife intent on a fling to rejuvenate her. They live and breathe, and Percy makes sure we remember each breath is the natural functioning of an animal, as subject to damage and the whims of a cruel wilderness as to humankind’s better angels.
Happily, Percy also sidesteps any easy redemptive message here (although Karen’s story simply bows out quietly and somewhat disappointingly) and we’re left with a ripping good yarn that also manages to explore our human relationship with both nature and our own natures in probing, messy ways.Visit: Benjamin Percy | Graywolf Press
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon