Benjamin Percy’s debut novel The Wilding starts out insanely strong, drags some in the middle act, brings the excitement back up for the climax, then completely pusses out with its resolution. It’s frustrating because there’s so much shit here that I like, so much interesting territory explored, yet ultimately the novel was a let-down. I’m positive Percy has a kick-ass book in him, but I’m sad to say that The Wilding just wasn’t that book for the Nerd.
In the novel we follow Justin Caves as he goes on a deer hunting and camping trip with his son and his father in a beautiful spot in the Oregon wilderness called Echo Canyon. Justin and his father used to hunt the spot often in Justin’s youth and this is the last weekend before local developer Bobby Fremont breaks gound on a massive new golf course and resort. Tensions between the emasculated Justin and his larger-than-life man’s-man father rise as the weekend carries on, but soon such disputes will become fucking moot as something deadly makes its way to camp…
Meanwhile back home, Justin’s wife Karen has some tensions of her own. Since she miscarried a child a few months back she has grown distant with her husband, preferring to jog and dream of being the person she was before she met him more than anything else. When Bobby Fremont offers to take her out to dinner, Karen may just take the first step toward a new life. Little does she know that a monster is coming for her too, in the form of a deranged Iraq war vet who who has become obsessed with her…
Percy is tackling some big-time James Dickey shit with this novel, talking about man vs nature and exploring masculinity in a very nuanced, fresh way. Justin is the gen-x everyman, a gentle and loving father who is useless at the manly arts that we associate with the generation before his. Throughout their excursion Justin is tortured by his need for his father’s approval along with his need for his own son’s respect, which is increasingly difficult to gain when gramps keeps undercutting his every attempt at asserting his paternal side.
Justin’s weaknesses are also laid bare in the Karen-devoted sections of The Wilding. There’s a wonderful scene where an owl comes out of the chimney while mother, father and child are having dinner, causing Justin to flee screaming, leaving Karen to chase it out of the house (a scene which is painfully and hilariously echoed late in the novel). Justin’s decidedly fey demeanor is in sharp contrast to that of Bobby Fremont, a man of great means and virility, not to mention old enough to stoke a whole lot of daddy issues. Obviously, there’s some great, tricky terrritory explored (and I didn’t even get to the endlessly fascinating Iraq vet character and what his character says about modern masculinity yet) and the characters are truly complex, but the endless middle section and cop out ending made the Nerd fairly fucking furious.
Loyal readers know that I’m not much for spoiler-y reviews, but to truly get into my issues with this book, I’m afraid that I just gotta be that guy, dear reader. So you know the drill…
!!! MAJOR SPOILER ALERT !!!
So we’ve got all these great characters and conflicts set up, where there’s some sort of creature lying in wait (which, full disclosure, is obviously a bear) for our three generations of men in the woods and another one quietly preying on Karen back home, then we just kinda…hang there. It’s not a bad place to be, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it takes its sweet fucking time, for sure. With the boys in the woods storyline that shit pays off pretty handily, some nice suspense sequences and bear attack mayhem making it ultimately pretty satisfying. But then at the end fucking nobody, not even Justin’s father, who an earlier scene pretty clearly lead us to believe to be dead, dies. In a story with stakes as high as these, a classic man vs. nature scenario, not even an old man can die? Come the fuck on.
But that didn’t bother me nearly as much as what happens in Karen’s storyline. We have this fantastic crazy stalker character following Karen around and watching her, all while wearing a suit made out of animals he’s skinned, basically threatening to rape or assault her at some point. At the very least this psycho is gonna have an intense, awkward confrontation with her at some point. Thing is, we get to that point in the end, we’ve got fucking Brian standing behind her while she folds laundry or some shit, and then he gets a headache and hides in the closet until dawn then just leaves – without Karen ever even knowing he was after her!
I mean, I’m not asking her to have a huge Fatal Attraction fight with him or anything, but to never even have her know how fucked she was? That is simply mildly clever, not dramatically interesting. There could have been so much more done with their interaction, instead it felt like the author was just running from a juicy conflict because he didn’t know how to handle it. Basically, it reduced Brian, a very good character, to nothing more than empty tension, a gimmick to add immediacy to Karen’s storyline. Brian deserved better than that and Karen deserved to have it out with him.
!!! END SPOILER ALERT !!!
To reiterate for those who avoided the spoilers, there’s a lot of interesting shit going down in Benjamin Percy’s debut novel, just not enough to push it past a mild recommendation. For the Nerd it’s one of those works that is so amazing in certain parts that when it fails in other ways it hurts twice as much as it probably should. Percy’s got a great one in him, it’s just that, though it has flashes of greatness, The Wilding, in the most dizzyingly frustrating manner, ain’t that masterpiece.