Livingas most of us now do in an urban and suburban world, we tend to idolize thedeep woods as a place of natural beauty, a place to renew and reflect. But ithas not been long since the forest primarily evoked notions of threat, chaos,and alienation—the place where Danteloses his way. In American literature,glens and glades are ripe with symbolism,and everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“YoungGoodman Brown”) to Raymond Carver (“SoMuch Water, So Close to Home”) has harvested meaningright down to the last blood-dappled blade of grass. Bythis point, you’d think that writerswould have exhausted wilderness as both place and symbol. AfterDeliverance,what remains to be said about pitting man against nature?
Plenty,if Benjamin Percy’s debut novel The Wilding isany indication. In these pages,landscape is as much a character as the three generations of men who set footin the woods on an ill-fated hunting trip. Grandfather,son, and grandson tracktrophy deer, but they are also pursued by the malevolent forces of weather andrazor-clawed beasts. In this book, MotherNature isn’t a benevolent provider of spiritual refreshment, but a mercilessbitch.
Percy,theacclaimed author of two short story collections (Refresh, Refresh andThe Language of Elk),ambitiously widens his scope for this debut novel and, for the most part, hesucceeds with an eco-thriller that more than holds its own against James Dickey’s landmark.In TheWilding, Justin Caves, a schoolteacher from Bend, Oregon, is haunted bydreams in which he hears a muted and scratchy recording of the old children’ssong, “Teddy Bears’Picnic,” whose lyrics warn: “Ifyou go down in the woods today, you better not go alone. It’slovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.”
Heshould have listened. Instead, he, hisbullying father Paul, and his 12-year-old son Graham set out into the heart ofdarkness, hoping for a little male bonding. Atfirst, the hunting trip seems like a good idea, a way to bring back what fatherand son seem to have lost, especially in the months since the older man’sheart attack. “Some guy time woulddefinitely be healthy,” Justin tells his father.Paul concurs, saying they’lldrink beer and raise hell out in the woods. Itwill be like old times:
Hisfather never took Justin to Hawaii or Disneyland or Mount Rushmore. Instead, he would loadup the bed of his pickup with camping gear and they would drive to ChristmasValley or the Umpqua River or the Malheur Preserve, some still-wild place wherethey would hike dry-mouthed across a desert flat or fish a snake-shaped riveror scour the forest floor for mushrooms to cook. Itwas in Echo Canyon—high in the Ochoco Mountains, among the big pines and beargrass meadows—that they hunted every November. ThoughJustin 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, fromEcho Canyon because it is about to disappear. Ina few days, a local businessman is about to bulldoze it into a developer’swet dream: a four-story iron-and-timber lodge the size of a football field,three hundred lots for mega-mansions purchased by “retiredCalifornians wearing polo shirts,”and a golf course carpeted with neon-green fairways. Onthe way to their favorite campsite, the three men pass by the bulldozers parkedat the edge of the forest, waiting for the moment on Monday morning when thekey turns in the ignition and the machines can transform an ancient landscapewith a few days work.
Eventhough, as Percy writes in the novel, civilization is what contains andannihilates wilderness, nature is not about to give up the fight so easily—asthe characters soon discover at their own peril. While the Caves men (punclearly intended) hunt deer, a bear is stalking them—at first just a shadow anda pair of red eyes in the night, but eventually it makes its appearance withsnapping teeth and thick ropes of saliva. Bythe time man, bear, and darkness converge at the book’s climax, readers will begripping the pages tightly and feeling for themselves what Percy describes as “heart-drumming,bladder-bursting fear.”
Fromthe novel’sfirst sentence—”His father came towardhim with the rifle”—there is menace onevery page of The Wilding.Nature, the source of food and sustenance, isalso the place where men die easily, quickly,and stupidly. This dichotomy, a naturefrom which we receive everything and from which we have to take shelter, is theheart of The Wilding. Percywrites: “And isn’tthat the real mystery of life: who you’llend up being consumed by? Or what you’llend up consuming?”
Whilethe men are “in the grip of theforest,” another pair ofsub-plots runs parallel throughout the course of the novel. Justin’swife Karen, devastated by a miscarriage, is questioning her marriage to a tameman who, she says, “is defined by hesitation.”She spends her mornings running along thehighways near Bend, fists pumping up and down like pistons as she wards off thehoots and catcalls from men passing in trucks. She,too, senses a lurking threat, but of a different kind:
Shewonders why so many men go through life thinking of themselves as predator andwomen as prey? She wonders where thiscomes from, this hunger, whether it is taught or inborn, a tooth-and-clawimpulse that comes from that far-off time when we loped through the woods andslumbered in caves.
Atthe same time, Karen is being stalked by a locksmith who comes to her rescueone rainy morning when she goes on a run and leaves the key inside the house. Brian, a shattered IraqiWar veteran, is one of the most sympathetic sexual predators you’llmeet in contemporary fiction. He’salso one of the weirdest. He has sewn together ahair suit from animal skins and now he lopes through the woods (where he’smistaken for Bigfoot) and silently pads unseen into Karen’sliving room. Brian, who cannot shakethe horrors of war, eventually comes to realize “lookinginside yourself is a little like looking inside a lock—you find darkness and amaze of confusion.”
TheWildingwraps its arms around some big themes: the vanishing wilderness, a dissolvingmarriage, and the shell-shocked re-adjustment to domestic life after combat. It’sa lot to pack into 250 pages, but Percy manages to do it with remarkable ease.His sentences have the simplicity and beauty ofShaker furniture, but he also writes meaty action scenes that never feel likethey depart from the book’s emotional core. Nomatter if we’re facing danger in thejungles of Manhattan or the deep woods of Oregon, life really boils down to twoquestions: Will we live?and Will it hurt when I die?Percy takes his characters right up to the edgeand forces them to stare, hard, intothe maw of the mystery any attempt to answer them reveals.