The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

 

 

Benjamin Percy’s debut is a noteworthy novel rife with danger and suspense, keeping the reader on edge and cautious of what might happen next. There’s a palpable electric charge simmering underneath the surface in this tale of fathers and sons and man versus nature. Percy examines the complex dynamics of familial relationships and explores the primitive instincts that each of us holds back, the awareness of its need to be released every now and then. Written in present tense narrative, Percy draws the reader in close to the events unfolding on the page, as if you are watching through the scope of a hunting rifle, while he skillfully builds the novel
toward its unexpected climax.
The story follows Justin, an English teacher, and his wife, Karen, who live in Bend, Oregon. They are distanced from one another due to a recent and painful loss of a baby and their marriage is on the brink of collapse with their son, Graham, the only thing keeping them together at this point. Justin tries to maintain a sense of normalcy at home, striving to hang on to the family life he once felt secure in and hoping to get past this rough patch with his wife. Through unspoken words and the veiled iciness of Karen’s reactions toward him, he quietly remembers the way things once were between them, fading memories that remain only that.
In contrast, we see Karen, who sometimes “feels like two women,” and the failure of bearing another child a weight of guilt that burdens her. While she feels stifled by Justin (and at times by Graham), she secretly longs to escape from a marriage that perpetually traps her, longing to be the women she once was. She is beautiful, eats healthy and takes up running to keep fit, running ten miles or more a day. But she remains vulnerable and her attempts to shed her mind and body from the ordinary, everyday life that is contained “behind walls mortared by makeup and casseroles and laundry detergent” still deters her. And this desire for freedom does not come without its own dangers, as her beauty brings the attraction of other men who quickly notice her. They admire her, leer at her, and desire her in ways that is not always welcomed.
Justin and Graham decide to give Karen a break and leave her alone for a few days as they head off to Echo Canyon, deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest on a hunting trip with Justin’s father, Paul. This is a last attempt to escape to and experience the Native American lands before it is developed into a casino and resort. While Justin is a mild-mannered young father, Paul is rough, a tough sort of man who craves the excitement and thrill of the wildness. He likes to say things like, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Justin and Paul each have a very different idea of the kind of hunting trip experience they want to give Graham and as they venture into the wilderness, painful memories slowly surface as Justin watches his father and is reminded of the man he once was and of their difficult relationship. At the same time, he holds a close watch on Graham, tying to ensure that he keeps him safe as a promise to Karen. But the three soon encounter dangers in the woods, both seen and unseen, and they are tested to their limits by the will to survive. In a particularly tense scene when Justin and Graham make their way out of the woods at night, escaping a danger that threatens them from the darkness, Percy makes a terrific observation of that separation between civilization and nature.  Justin eyes a collection of heavy machinery and is drawn to them. “Perhaps because they seem, all crowded together, like a fortress they can lock themselves away in – or perhaps because they represent what he seeks so desperately – civilization, the very thing that promises to contain and annihilate whatever wildness pursues them.” Though the landscape imagined here speaks of a dangerous wildness that exists both in nature and civilized humanity, Percy seems to hint to the reader there is always a glimmer of hope in all things.

The prose is powerful and Percy has an uncanny ability to detail simple things into one of unparalleled beauty. Anyone who enjoys a good adventure mixed with drama in a psychological thriller will appreciate this promising debut, showcasing a rare and skillful writer who is certain to deliver more.

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