The Wilding

By Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press
September 2010, Hardcover
288 pages


Reviewed by Alex Gallo-Brown


"There are trees in the city and garbage in the forest," Kurt laments in the 2006 film Old Joy. "What’s the big difference?"

Based on a short story by author Jon Raymond, Old Joy chronicles a camping trip taken by two friends, Mark and Kurt, whose lives are in the process of diverging. As they leave Portland in search of some natural hot springs, their rift is temporarily healed, the cacophony of the city fading into the soothing rhythms of nature.

The Wilding, the debut novel from acclaimed short story writer Benjamin Percy, also revolves around a camping trip in the Oregon woods, though east of the Cascade mountain range instead of Raymond’s west. But the natural world, in Percy’s portrayal, is less a setting of solace than a source of menace—a place wild, unpredictable, and ultimately dangerous.

The novel’s principal plot centers on a camping trip taken by three generations of Caves men to Echo Canyon, pristine wilderness about to be transformed into a golf resort. Paul is an aging, Bunyanesque figure with a failing heart, a contractor by trade, a man most comfortable with a knife or rifle or hammer in his hands. By contrast, his son, Justin, prefers the order and comforts of civilization, teaching English at a local high school and patronizing REI. Justin’s son, Graham, already speaks the language of computers and digital cameras, "not really a boy," in his mother’s view, "but a funny little man."

In his own boyhood, Justin and his father camped, hunted and fished in Echo Canyon—not so much communing with nature as attempting to conquer it. As an adult Justin suspects that he has disappointed his father, and he hopes for reconciliation in this final trip to the canyon. He looks forward to making peace. Instead, the trio encounters bulldozers and backhoes, a hostile local, a hissing rattlesnake, a dead and decaying corpse, and the evidence of a grizzly bear. It is a harsh nature they find, one that means to do them harm, and their own inner natures are revealed as they’re forced to confront it.

Meanwhile, back in the Caves’ hometown of Bend, a disturbed Iraqi veteran named Brian is stalking Justin’s wife, Karen. Their casual professional encounter days before provoked an onrush of emotion in Brian unfelt since returning from the war. He finds himself circling her house late at night, wearing the fur of wild animals. Karen, for her part, remains oblivious to Brian’s obsession, flirting instead with Bobby Fremont, the oily real estate developer intent on wrecking the canyon.

Nature, Percy seems to be saying in The Wilding, is not only a peaceful place for city dwellers to relieve stress—it is a wild thing, to be feared as much as revered. That wilderness inhabits humans too, in those biological impulses to hunt and eat and fuck and kill. Paul, spearing the rattler, looks like a "big dumb cat with a mouse in his jaws." Graham, a boy who has never before shot a gun, becomes a stone-cold killer sighting a deer through his scope:

He is so enchanted by the desire to kill—the same acute and forceful feeling that drove primitive man to bring a blade of obsidian to a stick and sharpen it—that his current life, his school and bicycle and his bedroom with the desk scored from the snarl of his pencil and the giant beer mug filled with brown pennies and the movie-monster posters hanging on the wall, has become nothing but a tiny black fly he brushes aside with his hand before bringing it to the stock and tightening his finger around the trigger.

Even Justin discovers his own inner wildness, smearing deer blood on his cheeks and whooping around like a wild thing.

Percy’s characters use various methods to conceal these uncivilized aspects of their nature. They make mental checklists (Justin), eat healthily (Karen), and memorize the names of animals and plants (Paul) to bring "order to a wilderness that would have otherwise appeared swarming and impenetrable." Such efforts may pacify the mind, but her obsession with health won’t protect Karen from the caprices of her own body—she has recently suffered a miscarriage—any more than knowing the name of the bear will shield Paul or Justin or Graham from its hunger-fueled rage.

Percy is as at home within the sentence as he is navigating these big themes. On nearly every page he accomplishes the great de-familiarizing work of fiction. Justin’s father, recovering from a heart attack, "does not look like his father. He looks like a pear that has begun to darken and collapse." Paul’s hands are "big brown things, busily rak[ing] through his beard like paws through rotten wood, seeking grubs, worms to eat." The people in the hospital waiting room look "dazed…as if they have been dropped from a great height." Justin, recalling a childhood visit to a slaughterhouse, remembers "the clattering of hooves and machinery, the high-pitched screams of the dying, all of it echoing through the vast chamber like a horrible music played from red-lunged accordions and drum sets constructed from bone."

At the novel’s end, as he strides through the newly-developed golf course, Justin feels "a little bigger, stronger, imagining the trees sawed down to stumps to make room for sunlight and green grass." Nature and civilization, for Percy as well as Kurt, are indeed indistinguishable. But where Kurt saw this as evidence of a fallen world, Percy, a little wiser, shows us that this has always been the case.