Benjamin Percy’s first novel, The Wilding, exhibits the broad range of ambition expected of the debut writer: a keen and almost preening attention to language, a careful consideration of character, a nod towards the political and worldly and an attempt to tackle issues of the greatest moral importance. And yet, for all this, it is also a good, fun read and a book that suggests its author has only begun to flex his writerly muscle.
At the novel’s start, readers meet Justin and Karen and their 12-year-old son, Graham, an Oregon family so bored by that specific breed of West Coast yuppyish malaise (organic food, expensive running gear) that they seem predestined for a shakeup. That shakeup comes courtesy of Justin’s bad-seed father, Paul, who takes Justin and Graham on a weekend hunting trip in Echo Canyon, which will soon be turned into a golf resort. The excursion is doomed almost from the get-go by Paul’s hardheaded masculinity and Justin’s crippling cowardice, not to mention an angry redneck and a hungry grizzly bear who both seem to have it out for them. Meanwhile, Karen has problems of her own, as she considers an affair with the canyon’s developer and becomes the object of creepy obsession for a troubled Iraq War veteran—a man who wears a body suit he has fashioned from bear hide, it’s worth noting.
In short, each character must confront the age-old problem of negotiating civility and desire, conformity and savagery. There is very little veiling our basest instincts, Percy seems to say (at one point the hunting party gruesomely and joyously plays with the innards of their kill), and often it’s easier than one might think to give up decorum.
Such messages do, at times, come across as heavy-handed, and it’s certainly clear that Percy wrote with his themes in mind. Still,The Wilding emerges as creative, unique and deeply thought-provoking. More so, it speaks of an author with many more tricks up his sleeve.