The Wilding by Benjamin Percy is a powerful book packed with tension, unease, and life at the edge of the forest, where quite possibly man should stay. It is an intricate weaving of several different point of views: the fractured soldier back from fighting in Baghdad, Brian, who dresses up in the hide of wild animals, creeping around the woods, spying on a woman he longs for, eager for some sort of meaningful contact; Justin, the beaten down husband of Karen, a woman unhappy and distant after a miscarriage; their son, Graham, a bookworm, about to make his first kill; and the grandfather, Paul, watching over them all with disdain, longing to make men of his boys, at whatever cost. And looming at the edge of it all is the violence of nature, the push back of locals frustrated by the expansion of business, the unseen bear that haunts the Oregon woods, waiting to tear them apart.
This story about man versus nature starts with the cover art, the black and white photograph of driftwood crowding out the darkness, barely keeping it at bay. The way the type slides towards the corner, getting smaller, the shadow hanging over the wood, the choice of the typeface even that lends itself to the swipe of a bear’s paw across the cover, the author’s name in blood red type. These are all little hints of what is to come. The book begins:
“His father came toward him with the rifle. From where Justin sat at his desk—his homework spread before him—both his father and the gun appeared to be growing, so that when handed the weapon, he wasn’t sure he was strong enough to carry it. Around his father, Justin had always felt that way, as if everything were bigger than he was.”
This fear is at the heart of The Wilding, this story about a boy, Justin, who grows into a man that lives in the shadow of his own father, Paul. Throughout the novel it is a recurring theme, the way Paul berates Justin for being less than a man, too weak to keep his wife in line, too afraid of everything, of failure, of letting loose and having fun, every shadow and rustle in the brush, of letting his own son Graham have a gun, shoot it, have his first beer–it never ends. This is a battle that Justin has to keep up, and he is tested, repeatedly, until in the end, he becomes his own person, watching his son grow up fast in the face of the violence and death they witness in the woods. Their relationship becomes a bond, out of survival, and the witnessing of their true character when faced with life-altering decisions.
Intertwined with the storyline of Justin, Paul and Graham, is that of Brian, the war veteran, who is a locksmith by day, a mutated shadow by night. He was injured over in Baghdad, shrapnel scarring his flesh, taking a chunk of his head off, leaving him damaged in so many ways. Brian is emotionally distraught, distant from everyone and everything, a recluse. His mind wanders over the Oregon landscape, at times feeling as if he is back in battle, the hills and dirt reminding him of his time in the service, the quick footsteps of heels on a sidewalk sending him into a state of panic, waking up next to somebody that he nearly chokes to death. His scars and wounds make him reluctant to engage in any meaningful relationships, so he floats in the ether, untethered and lost. He is victim to random migraines that are debilitating, rendering him weak, and vulnerable.
“For a long time he did not feel he was capable of continuing to live a normal life, of achieving any sort of sense of comfort. He felt that he had lost more than a section of his skull. He had lost himself as well.”
So it is not surprising when he traps and skins animals—beavers, coyote—to make a bodysuit, a costume. It is reminiscent of one he wore as a child, loping around his house with an erection straining against the fabric, until his father catches him and throws it out. He uses this false identity to go out into the woods, to stalk Karen, who is alone while her family is off in the woods. When she is accidentally locked out, Brian helps her to get into her house, being a locksmith after all, and he’s instantly infatuated with her. She is different then the rest, she is willing to lay her hand over his in the grocery store, she sees him for more than his wounds. Or so he thinks. Eventually the spell wears off and he realizes his mistakes, the relationship he thought was there, nothing but the common human kindness he so desperately needs.
“When he sets off into the trees, when he lurches forward, staying low to the ground, using his hands as well as his feet to guide him, away from his house, away from Bend, he becomes the woods, which means he doesn’t have to be anything else, invisible, gone.”
Brian’s story echoes that of Karen as well, this disconnect. She is an angry woman, purposefully detached, and unhappy:
“Tonight she grills steaks. She thinks her husband ought to do this—she thinks he ought to do a number of things, like lift weights and scream at football games and take a wrench to leaky faucets. These are, after all, things that men do. But he isn’t very handy and doesn’t have time for the gym and the only sport he watches with any interest is soccer. She doesn’t know what the right word is for him. Tame?”
The duality and depth of Karen is what makes her so interesting. You find yourself nodding your head, sympathetic to her plight. Her husband should be doing these things, like any normal man should, these acts of inherent manliness. It’s obvious what she needs—a real man, and in every sense of the word. And yet, there is a violence buried in Karen, a core of coldness that appeared after her miscarriage, and she comes off as mean, cruel at times, self-absorbed and unavailable. So we want to see her fail as well, and wonder what Brian may do to her as he watches her from the woods. She wants a brute, a beast. She wants to be taken? Well, maybe that’s what she’ll get. The raw animal instincts that reverberate throughout this novel aren’t limited to the men. She looks for danger, she attracts it with her actions, her behavior, lunch with a wealthy builder, on the verge of an affair. It is this echo to the plight of her family, stuck in the woods, late, her nerves on edge when the phone call finally comes.
If you’ve ever read any of Benjamin Percy’s short stories, in collections like The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006) or Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) then you know he is an outdoorsman, a man of nature, his youth spent in Central Oregon. His descriptions of the woods, the rocky canyon, the land around them, is layered and fresh. Every howl of a lonely coyote, screech of an owl, every pile of fecal matter littered with berries, or rotting pile of bones dancing with flies, is a captured moment in the constant life and death struggles of the wild animals that live in this quickly disappearing habitat, the intrusion of man an unwelcome act. You are there amidst the beauty of it all, the gurgling streams, heavy with silver-backed fish, respectful of the peaceful surroundings, but never forgetful of whose home this really is, and how fragile our human lives really are.
“Along the banks of the South Fork, willows crowd together. The world tries to reflect itself in the water, but can’t. The clouds and trees and sun fall into the surface and vanish, swept away by the white water, along with their faces when they stand at twenty-yard intervals along the rocky bank and plop their spinners in the water. They have to be careful not to tangle their lines in the branches, snapping their wrists with short sidearm casts.”
In the end, there is danger made real, there is violence and death, and there is the chance for rebirth and redemption. An animal spirit has been awakened in this journey, a call to the wild, a desire to be a simple animal again, to live without thought, to exist in nature in a raw state, without politics, and worry, and machines. There is a respect for this beautiful giant that slumbers all around us, and a need to be one with it. And yet, there is a sense of our evolution, of the family and comforts that we enjoy, an appreciation for these things as well. What Benjamin Percy does in The Wilding is remind us of ourselves, who we really are, intelligent beasts, and with that comes a certain responsibility, and a grace, a reverence for how we got here.