Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review: The Wilding Strong But Flawed Debut from Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy’s short story “Refresh, Refresh” came up in every writing workshop I took last year. We read it twice. At least one person admitted crying over it. People were either profoundly moved, or rather upset. In other words, it’s a powerful story, like all great short stories packing an enormous amount into a few pages.

So I was excited to hear Percy had a novel coming out (which I only read this week as I have so many items on my reading list – and it’s popular so it was a long wait from the library). Does it fulfill the promise of his short stories? Yes and no. It meets the crucial test of any book in that I couldn’t put it down, reading the whole thing in two sittings (including the last two-thirds in one night). Thematically, it sprawls like a Jonathan Franzen novel: father-son relationships, the dynamics of marriage, the impact of miscarriages, the Iraq war, PTSD, land-use, native rights, the environment, the relationship between new and old residents in rapidly growing communities – and all of this is packed into 255 pages!

But some of these parts don’t fit – and perhaps this is where his roots as a short-story writer show through. It feels like three stories shoehorned together that don’t necessarily function like a coherent whole.

At its core, The Wilding is about two men and a boy going on a last hunting and fishing trip to an Oregon canyon that’s scheduled for development. The center of the trio is Justin Case, a 42-year-old English teacher. Justin has taken a very different path from the second member of the trio, his larger-than-life father Paul. While Justin is different from his father, he’s also reacted against him, becoming, in his father’s words, somewhat of a wuss. Paul is a man’s man. He smokes, he drinks a six-pack every night, and even though he’s a successful businessman who builds customized log homes, he gets right in and works with his men.

The third member of the group is Justin’s son Graham – and one of the crucial questions the novel deals with is which way Graham will turn out: like Paul or like Justin. Percy handles this part of the story masterfully. Graham seems very much like Justin at first, but without cliché or gimmickry, the author carefully reveals the potential for Graham to become just like his grandfather.

This core story is the most compelling part of the novel. It’s essentially a thriller as the three encounter a local who vandalizes their gear, and a bear that may or may not be stalking them. Percy is at his best in these scenes, reverentially describing the physical environment while also highlighting its potential for danger and the clash between man and wilderness. He also excels at the dynamics of the relationships between the men. Paul is a type we’ve seen before, but Percy adds a fresh take, particularly toward the end of the story.

There are two additional stories at work. One involves the relationship between Justin and his wife Karen. She suffers a miscarriage, has difficulties dealing with it, and their marriage slowly unwinds, the miscarriage surfacing existing problems. Karen contemplates an affair with a wealthy local developer, and runs miles every day to burn off energy and anger. It’s the least impressive part of this work. Karen is never fully formed and the chapters from her perspective never really gain traction.

The other story is stronger, although it’s potential isn’t fulfilled. Brian is an Iraq war veteran with a damaged frontal lobe from an IED, suffering migraines and PTSD, on top of an already troubled mental state. He has lost the ability to relate to people and instead sews himself a suit from animal fur, dressing up in it and roaming around (mistaken for Sasquatch at one point). It’s a strong image (if a little too Silence of the Lambs-like): Brian’s isolation and attempt to return to a primitive state seem to symbolize many of Percy’s broader themes, particularly as Brian stands for al the long-time residents of Bend, a town changed irretrievably by development and newcomers. Brian encounters Karen early in the novel and becomes obsessed with her. But this story never quite fits with the rest of the book. It may have functioned better as a stand-alone story.

This is still, however, a strong work, one that I recommend reading. The problems are the “sins of ambition” as they say, and if it’s occasionally overwritten, the prose is mostly outstanding, dripping with meaning and imagery, and always driving the story forward.

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