The Wilding

Living as most of us now do in an urban and suburban world, we tend to idolize the deep woods as a place of natural beauty, a place to renew and reflect. But it has not been long since the forest primarily evoked notions of threat, chaos, and alienation—the place where Dante loses his way. In American literature, glens and glades are ripe with symbolism, and everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne ("Young Goodman Brown") to Raymond Carver ("So Much Water, So Close to Home") has harvested meaning right down to the last blood-dappled blade of grass. By this point, you'd think that writers would have exhausted wilderness as both place and symbol. After Deliverance, what remains to be said about pitting man against nature?


Plenty, if Benjamin Percy's debut novel The Wilding is any indication. In these pages, landscape is as much a character as the three generations of men who set foot in the woods on an ill-fated hunting trip. Grandfather, son, and grandson track trophy deer, but they are also pursued by the malevolent forces of weather and razor-clawed beasts. In this book, Mother Nature isn't a benevolent provider of spiritual refreshment, but a merciless bitch.


Percy, the acclaimed author of two short story collections (Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk), ambitiously widens his scope for this debut novel and, for the most part, he succeeds with an eco-thriller that more than holds its own against James Dickey's landmark. In The Wilding, Justin Caves, a schoolteacher from Bend, Oregon, is haunted by dreams in which he hears a muted and scratchy recording of the old children's song, "Teddy Bears' Picnic," whose lyrics warn: "If you go down in the woods today, you better not go alone. It's lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home."


He should have listened. Instead, he, his bullying father Paul, and his 12-year-old son Graham set out into the heart of darkness, hoping for a little male bonding. At first, the hunting trip seems like a good idea, a way to bring back what father and son seem to have lost, especially in the months since the older man's heart attack. "Some guy time would definitely be healthy," Justin tells his father. Paul concurs, saying they'll drink beer and raise hell out in the woods. It will be like old times:

His father never took Justin to Hawaii or Disneyland or Mount Rushmore. Instead, he would load up the bed of his pickup with camping gear and they would drive to Christmas Valley or the Umpqua River or the Malheur Preserve, some still-wild place where they would hike dry-mouthed across a desert flat or fish a snake-shaped river or scour the forest floor for mushrooms to cook. It was in Echo Canyon—high in the Ochoco Mountains, among the big pines and bear grass meadows—that they hunted every November. Though Justin hasn't been there in years, he feels a strong connection to its woods, as does his father.

Paul, Justin, and Graham travel deep into the trees to suck the marrow, Thoreau-style, from Echo Canyon because it is about to disappear. In a few days, a local businessman is about to bulldoze it into a developer's wet dream: a four-story iron-and-timber lodge the size of a football field, three hundred lots for mega-mansions purchased by "retired Californians wearing polo shirts," and a golf course carpeted with neon-green fairways. On the way to their favorite campsite, the three men pass by the bulldozers parked at the edge of the forest, waiting for the moment on Monday morning when the key turns in the ignition and the machines can transform an ancient landscape with a few days work.


Even though, as Percy writes in the novel, civilization is what contains and annihilates wilderness, nature is not about to give up the fight so easily—as the characters soon discover at their own peril. While the Caves men (pun clearly intended) hunt deer, a bear is stalking them—at first just a shadow and a pair of red eyes in the night, but eventually it makes its appearance with snapping teeth and thick ropes of saliva. By the time man, bear, and darkness converge at the book's climax, readers will be gripping the pages tightly and feeling for themselves what Percy describes as "heart-drumming, bladder-bursting fear."


From the novel's first sentence—"His father came toward him with the rifle"—there is menace on every page of The Wilding. Nature, the source of food and sustenance, is also the place where men die easily, quickly, and stupidly. This dichotomy, a nature from which we receive everything and from which we have to take shelter, is the heart of The Wilding. Percy writes: "And isn't that the real mystery of life: who you'll end up being consumed by? Or what you'll end up consuming?"


While the men are "in the grip of the forest," another pair of sub-plots runs parallel throughout the course of the novel. Justin's wife Karen, devastated by a miscarriage, is questioning her marriage to a tame man who, she says, "is defined by hesitation." She spends her mornings running along the highways near Bend, fists pumping up and down like pistons as she wards off the hoots and catcalls from men passing in trucks. She, too, senses a lurking threat, but of a different kind:

She wonders why so many men go through life thinking of themselves as predator and women as prey? She wonders where this comes from, this hunger, whether it is taught or inborn, a tooth-and-claw impulse that comes from that far-off time when we loped through the woods and slumbered in caves.

At the same time, Karen is being stalked by a locksmith who comes to her rescue one rainy morning when she goes on a run and leaves the key inside the house. Brian, a shattered Iraqi War veteran, is one of the most sympathetic sexual predators you'll meet in contemporary fiction. He's also one of the weirdest. He has sewn together a hair suit from animal skins and now he lopes through the woods (where he's mistaken for Bigfoot) and silently pads unseen into Karen's living room. Brian, who cannot shake the horrors of war, eventually comes to realize "looking inside yourself is a little like looking inside a lock—you find darkness and a maze of confusion."


The Wilding wraps its arms around some big themes: the vanishing wilderness, a dissolving marriage, and the shell-shocked re-adjustment to domestic life after combat. It's a lot to pack into 250 pages, but Percy manages to do it with remarkable ease. His sentences have the simplicity and beauty of Shaker furniture, but he also writes meaty action scenes that never feel like they depart from the book's emotional core. No matter if we're facing danger in the jungles of Manhattan or the deep woods of Oregon, life really boils down to two questions: Will we live? and Will it hurt when I die? Percy takes his characters right up to the edge and forces them to stare, hard, into the maw of the mystery any attempt to answer them reveals.

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