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The Wilding: A Novel Hardcover – September 28, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Percy's excellent debut novel (after the collection Refresh, Refresh) digs into the ambiguous American attitude toward nature as it oscillates between Thoreau's romantic appreciation and sheer gothic horror. The plot concerns a hunting trip taken by Justin Caves and his sixth-grade son, Graham, with Justin's bullying father, Paul, a passionate outdoorsman in failing health who's determined to spend one last weekend in the Echo Canyon before real estate developer Bobby Fremont turns the sublime pocket of wilderness into a golfing resort. Justin, a high school English teacher, has hit an almost terminally rough patch in his marriage to Karen, who, while the boys camp, contemplates an affair with Bobby, though she may have bigger problems with wounded Iraq war vet Brian, a case study in creepy stalker. The men, meanwhile, are being tracked by a beast and must contend with a vengeful roughneck roaming the woods. A taut plot and cast of deeply flawed characters--Justin is a masterwork of pitiable wretchedness--will keep readers rapt as peril descends and split-second decisions come to have lifelong repercussions. It's as close as you can get to a contemporary Deliverance.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Wilderness, in several senses, is at the root of this ambitious first novel. A man named Justin; his impulsive, willful father; and his studious, school-age son spend a weekend camping and hunting in an Oregon wilderness area that will soon become a golf resort. Portents of danger accompany them: a rattler in their tent, an enraged redneck, and signs of a marauding bear. But it’s granddad who seems the greatest threat, and Justin, who has always shied away from confrontation, worries that even if they survive, the fabric of family may not. Percy skillfully limns the psychic wildernesses of his characters even as he paints a vivid image of central Oregon’s high desert, the impact of development, and the divide between capitalism and conservation. A parallel story of Justin’s angst-ridden wife, who is being stalked by an ex-marine who suffered a horrific head wound in Iraq, is also effective; but it creates one more psychic wilderness than the book can handle. The Wilding seems a bit overambitious, but, even so, it draws readers in and holds them in its grasp. --Thomas Gaughan
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Benjamin Percy takes up the challenge and for the most part succeeds in "The Wilding," a tightly wound, gutsy follow-up to the author's award winning collection "Refresh, Refresh" and "The Language of Elk."
Percy quotes from "Deliverance" in his novel's front pages and goes on, as Dickey did, to place men at peril in the "dark forest" where menace is everywhere and their struggle to survive slowly strips away layer by layer their veneer of sociability and order.
Bad things happen early. The blood on the kitchen floor in the opening pages foreshadows the danger and violence that follow and the sets the pace at which the action unfolds.
The three people sent into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest are Justin Caves, who teaches high school English in Bend, Ore., his sixth-grader son Graham and Justin's father Paul, a rough-hewn builder full of bluster, an outdoorsman and bully with big, leathery hands that "rake through his beard like paws through rotten wood."
At the elder's urging, the three of them and the old man's dog Boo spend "guy time" on a camping weekend in Echo Canyon, a revered family hunting spot in the "big pines and bear grass meadows" of the Ochoco Mountains of Central Oregon.
This will be the last time they hunt the canyon. The once-public land will be bulldozed beginning the following Monday and the wilderness paved over with asphalt roads and river-rock drives leading up to a lavish golf resort. As they enter the canyon, they encounter the backhoes, skidders, front-end loaders and other earth moving equipment already huddled and waiting for game day.
Justin is a mild man "with neat hair, parted on the right" who leads an ordered grown-up life that avoids risk and adventure. He is someone his wife Karen thinks is "so easily cowed." By his father's measure, Justin is almost timid and certainly over-protective of his young son.
At the very front of the weekend, the grandfather has already armed his young grandson with a rifle and given the boy his first beer. Graham in his grandfather's estimation is "one good kid" who manages to bring down their first deer of the hunt.
The Kindle edition I read contains a couple annoying formatting issues that when they occur tend to kick the reader out of the story. Across pages, line breaks are wrong and two hyphens (or maybe they're en dashes) separate the two pieces of a compound word (cross-train becomes cross - - train). And instead of a dash, you're more likely to get four of the hyphens strung together. If you're easily annoyed, these slips may be a problem. But once you get past the formatting dirt and some early loose editing and soggy similes "she clutches her son to her as if he were a lost organ she wants to force back inside her," the narrative plows ahead with force and drive.
The descriptions of wilderness from the vantage point of Central Oregon and of nature are apt and very often evocative: "the buck startles at the sound, stepping clumsily backward, before trotting away, back into the forest, vanishing between the trees midleap, as if its antlers fit just so."
As in "Deliverance," much of the menace comes from the men who claim the land as theirs. In "The Wilding" it's a vengeful backwoodsman they encounter when they stop to stock up for their trip. But the greatest danger comes from a mostly unseen presence shadowing them throughout the weekend. The two men and boy are intruders, and for much of the novel it feels as if something amorphous as the wild itself is the real evil. Eventually it becomes probable that there is something real to fear, something that has shape and a will to harm.
At night, inside their tent Justin "floats in a gray zone between waking and dreaming - and then he notices, only inches away from his cot, the tent wall is moving, dented inward. This is not the wind. This is a compacted pressure - rounded and growing in size, coming slowly toward him. A snout or a paw."
Their tent is only a thin shell of fabric and it is all that separates the men and boy from the wild and all the evil gathering and circling in the darkness. As the menace becomes a very real test of survival, they find themselves combating fear and deciding what to do next as much as they are battling with the living, breathing danger. Their tale is harrowing, hair-raising. Whoever among them walks out of the wild will be mild-mannered no longer.
So while the three are on this trip, Karen finds herself locked out of her house. Brian, an Iraq war veteran, has inherited his father's locksmith business--and he comes to Karen's rescue. I don't want to give much about Brian except to say that he suffers from a brain injury and, as a result, has some rather unhealthy behaviors that Benjamin Percy develops very effectively.
The novel is filled with absolutely wonderful sentences: "An owl banks and wheels, its silhouette blacking out the stars int he shape of a mouth."
And here's a sentence that captures the essence of Paul: "...one winter after his woodpile receded faster than he knew it ought to, he drilled a hole deep into a piece of firewood and filled it with gunpowder and sealed it with putty--and when the livingroom of his neighbor...exploded...Justin's father called FTD with a smile...and ordered flowers to be delivered to the hospital."
The book is told from the point of view of the small cast of characters, so the reader moves back and forth among them.
I want to mention something that I like, something not often dealt with in reviews. Benjamin Percy effectively uses dashes in unique ways, all of which work but defy the usual "rules" for the dash. In one sentence he has a string of adverbial clauses that precede the independent clause. Instead of using the comma, he uses the dash. And this is only one unique way he makes the writing that much more interesting.
I would advise you not to take the one-star reviews seriously. I doubt those readers actually read this amazing novel, one that is absolutely filled with action. The author has a wealth of knowledge and is certain to become one of the outstanding contemporary authors.