Benjamin Percy, The Wilding

Publisher: Graywolf Press

2010, 258 pages, hardcover, $23

benjamin percy has made a name for himself as a strong short story writer, and The Wilding is his first novel. Percy’s fiction has always had a superb sense of place, the high desert of central Oregon where the characters are regular people ranging from blue collar workers, returning veterans, and the younger generation coming into its own. Percy’s men hunt, fish, and drink beer; but they also worry about pleasing their hyper-masculine fathers, being good to their wives, and raising their children without harm. In the past few years, Percy’s two short story collections, The Language of Elk, and Refresh, Refresh, have stamped his own world and themes upon the literary landscape. His first novel offers all of the same virtues.

The Wilding is an exciting read. In the tradition of Hemingway, Percy sends his characters into a man vs. nature hunting trip in the northwestern wilderness. The main character is Justin, a young, family man, who is still emasculated by his father’s bully behavior. Paul, Justin’s dad, is “the kind of father who says things like ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body,'” whereas Justin teaches high school English and leaves the outdoor grilling duties to his wife, Karen. Paul, Justin, and Justin’s son, Graham, go into Echo Canyon; and there, like Dickey’s Deliverance, they encounter a true, primal danger.

Percy knows how to create suspense and sympathetic characters. The Wilding forces the reader to turn the page just as much as any Stephen King or John Grisham novel, but with more heart and style. Like his shorter works, The Wilding can be terrifying at times, touching at others. He explores violence in the opposite way of Cormac McCarthy, by delving into the fear and pain that remain after wounds heal and scar over. If one enjoys Percy’s stories, there is little reason to suspect he or she would not devour his debut novel.

None of this is to say The Wilding is perfect. Percy’s writing is its best when his prose reads effortlessly, and there are many parts where a reader senses Percy struggling with a line or a description. His similes, and there are lots of them, are either smooth or so awkward they stop a reader in mid-sentence. The symbolism in The Wilding is also a bit much, a common problem in first novels. There are men with scars on their forehead, signaling a third eye. Justin and his father have the last name of “Caves,” making them the “Cave Men.” Get it? At times, The Wilding also reads somewhat like an over-blown short story. There are subplots with Karen, the wife, which read as if added later in hopes of appealing more to female readers.

Ultimately, The Wilding is an impressive first novel and marks Percy as one of the leading writers of his generation to carry on the tradition of American writers exploring masculinity defined by physical conflict. Despite the book’s flaws, it is exciting to see a fresh voice and one can only guess at what Percy’s second novel will do.

—Will Jenson