THE WILDING by Benjamin Percy

Book Quote:

“He hears a sudden rumble and flinches before glancing up. There, in a patch of blue sky, he sees a jet with a long white contrail following it. He imagines himself inside the jet, among all the passengers, reading their magazines and eating from their single-serving pretzel bags, all of them heading someplace civilized, safe, contained by fences and lit with bright lights.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (SEP 28, 2010)

Although Justin Caves is a grown man now, one incident from his childhood in Oregon regularly returns to haunt him: he once comes face-to-face with a wounded bear in the woods outside his house. Worse, his father encourages him not to be a “pantywaist” but to aim his rifle carefully and shoot it. The all-consuming terror and helplessness he felt then, has never gone away.

Years later, Justin is what his wife describes perfectly as “tame.” His marriage to Karen, a school dietitian, is shaky after the stillbirth of their second child. And while the town of Bend in Oregon has changed irrevocably since his boyhood days, Justin isn’t so sure if it was all for the worse. He “prefers Billy Joel to Skynrd—and Starbucks to Folgers—and finds himself identifying more with what Bend is becoming than what it once was,” author Benjamin Percy writes. Justin’s relationship with his outdoorsy brute of a father is as fractured as it always was.

Now it turns out that Echo Canyon—the one last remaining beautiful wooded place that holds precious memories for the Caves—is about to get paved over and converted into a putting green anchored by an iron and timber lodge. So when Justin’s father, Paul, suggests a weekend camping trip in the woods, Justin takes up the offer. At his father’s insistence, Justin brings along his sixth-grader son, Graham—Paul is convinced he’ll make a man out of Graham yet. So Colombia camping gear all packed, the men set out on what they hope will be a fun bonding trip in the woods.

They leave Karen behind at home—she has nothing much planned for the weekend apart from her usual long runs and exercise. Lately she has been warming up to Bobby Freemont, the real estate developer who is now focusing his energies on Echo Canyon. But she knows she is not truly interested. She’s more flattered by his attraction to her and, towards the end, made uncomfortable by it.

Also attracted to Karen is an Iraq war vet called Brian. He is a locksmith by trade (having inherited the family business) and when Karen calls him once to help when she accidentally locks herself out of her own house, Brian can’t help but hold on to a duplicate. At various points in the novel, he lets himself in to the house or hovers just beyond it in the darkness, silently spying on her and adding to the already creepy narrative of the novel.

Benjamin Percy, who has won much literary acclaim for his collections of short stories, does an outstanding job with his debut novel. He was evaluated the concept of “wildness” from every possible angle. Metaphors abound here—Percy sees wildness not just in the most obvious of places but even in everyday situations. For example, Justin notices how Karen has her “teeth bared in a snarl” when she goes on her daily jogs. Karen, for her part, wonders “why so many men go through life thinking of themselves as predator and women as prey.”

It is also interesting how the characters almost seem to want an elemental wildness about them. Justin, Karen, Brian—are all affected by a mid-life stasis. So the simplicity and call of the wild at a time when their own lives are lacking in much substance is understandably very alluring. At one point in the story, Justin delights in being able to connect to the land through sheer physical labor. After all, it had been “long since he has spent a full day under the sun, sweating, relying on his muscles as much as his mind,” Percy writes.

Also complicated are the grey areas of environmental conservation versus development. Percy shows how difficult it is to differentiate between the good and bad guys in such situations and how compromises that might not be the most obvious solutions, are often struck. The Wilding makes subtle yet pointed jabs at the urban (and often, liberal) views about what the wild truly means. Justin’s son, Graham, for example, totes along a wildlife field guide on the trip. His wide-eyed romanticism at the prospect of being able to catalog everything he comes across in the wild, into neat little compartments through the use of his digital camera, is not much different from his own father’s views.

One of the most absorbing moments in the book comes when Justin is in the middle of the woods, terrified as hell, looks up to see a jet moving along in the sky. He imagines himself inside the plane, in some place civilized. Civilization—you don’t know how much you miss it till the wild completely envelops you.

Interestingly enough, The Wilding also shines a light on the markedly different parenting styles between our generation’s and our parents’. Justin often (sadly) treats his son as an equal partner on their adventure while the distance between Justin and his dad is too pronounced to be ignored. In fact Justin’s father, Paul, is the one weak link in the book. He comes across as so boorish—always telling the guys around him to act like real men etc.—that eventually he becomes a flat one-dimensional character on the page.

Above all else though, The Wilding is a pitch-perfect capture of the essence of the wild. As Benjamin Percy shows us, the concept of nature isn’t always warm and fuzzy as represented by cute and cuddly dolphins. It is often raw, ferocious and feral and the stuff of nightmares. As darkness sets in every evening at Echo Canyon, it’s hard not to break out in goosebumps. After all, when it comes down to the survival of the fittest, one can’t quite gauge how a Starbucks-loving, REI-wearing, “tame” man will hold his own against the “wilding.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: Graywolf Press (September 28, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Benjamin Percy
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another one set in Bend, Oregon:

Going to Bend by Diane Hammond

Another small town, getting bigger:

Bone Fire by Mark Spragg


September 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary, US Northwest

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