The Wilding, by Benjamin Percy
Reviewed by Sharon Harrigan
I spent my childhood in a big city and most of my adulthood in a bigger one. I never went hunting or even held a gun. So if you had told me that a work of fiction could make me want to shoot, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that was before I read The Wilding.
This lyrical fable about the impact of man on nature and nature on man is so skillful at describing the primal pleasures of hunting that the reader experiences the adrenaline rush of Graham—a scrawny, asthmatic, twelve year old—when his grandfather gives him a brand-new .30-.30 lever-action rifle. Graham “listens eagerly and stares with an enchanted expression on his face, as if the rifle were a long shapely leg capped by a red high heel.” Holding the gun gives him “immediate confidence.” Even though he is pre-pubescent, he understands the thrill when his grandfather says, “This will penetrate like there’s no tomorrow.” Justin, Graham’s father, remembers his first time: “the power, the lurking pleasure of the cold metal fitting into his warm hand.”
The relationship of these three male characters—Paul, the grandfather; Justin, the father; and Graham—forms the throbbing heart of the book. The prologue begins with a haunting scene from when Justin was twelve. His father handed him a gun, showed him a bear trapped in barbed wire, and said, “I want you to kill it,” as if “killing was throwing a knuckleball or fixing a carburetor.”
At the start of the story, thirty years have passed since that incident, but “little [had] changed between Justin and his father, even as Oregon changed all around them.” Justin still cows to Paul, a domineering hulk of man who personifies the negative extremes of masculinity. He is “a force of nature, moving through life with reckless abandon.” “The low growl of his voice” is “like a distant shout of thunder.”Justin is a high school teacher who used to enjoy his job, but “the work begins to rub away at your heart.” The low pay, the endless piles of paper, the exhaustion, make him feel “as if nothing he says or does matters.” His wife chastises him for not grilling steaks, lifting weights, screaming at football games, and taking a wrench to leaky faucets. She calls him “tame.”
Graham is “the type of boy who . . . makes his bed every morning . . . and never begs for candy stacked next to the cash register.” He favors chinos to jeans and tows the line, even though Justin encourages him to “live more adventurously” because “boys are supposed to do horrible things. It’s in their nature.”
Most of the action takes place over a weekend, when these three take a hunting trip to Echo Canyon, days before a construction crew will start turning it into a golf resort. At the end of this incredible ride of a weekend—full of danger and triumph and grief and (ultimately) some satisfying revenge and poetic justice—all three men (and they are men at the end) are transformed by a bear that their guidebook says is not supposed to exist.
Woven into this trio are the stories of Justin’s wife and the man who stalks her. Karen “wonders why so many men go through life thinking of themselves as predator and women as prey,” yet also enjoys the animal desire she provokes. Brian, a locksmith and a veteran from the Iraq War, meets Karen for the first time when she accidentally locks herself out of the house.
Brian’s story provides some of the most comic elements of the book (when strangers sight him in the woods and mistake him for Big Foot). Bobby, the developer, also lightens this dark story when he is chased by an owl and his false teeth fall out. Bobby has “a deep set of wrinkles, like parentheses that imply he always has something hidden behind what he is saying.”
The writing is subtle and poetic, leavening the tense action with controlled and metaphoric language, as alive as the blood throbbing through our veins. The school secretary wears lipstick that “makes her mouth appear like a bleeding gash.” Karen’s lips and teeth remind Brian “of bones seen through a wound.” The landscape is made up of “plateaus and buttes stacked up like slabs of meat,” and trees “scabbed over with bark the color of dried blood.”
The Wilding manages a tricky balancing act. It tackles timely subject matter on a grand scale—the way real estate development can destroy the wilderness, war can ravage the minds and hearts of soldiers, white-collar jobs can stifle our connection to nature, greed can form unlikely alliances, and stereotypical gender expectations can damage marriages—but it is never preachy. It is filled with the threat of danger but doesn’t feel like a violent book.
Although my desire to shoot a gun may not last long, I predict this book will. You can’t read it without having your worldview transformed as much as the three men who went hunting in the canyon.