A long-abandoned tent. A long-dead body. A disgruntled local. A kid with asthma. An aging man with heart problems. A marriage in crisis. Rumors that it was a massive grizzly bear (not found in these parts) that mauled two teenage girls. An honorably-discharged Iraq vet, injured in Fallujah, who has taken to putting on a “hair suit” (made of animal furs) and sneaking into stranger’s homes — mainly just to see if he can get away with it.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher in Ben Percy’s tense debut novel The Wilding, set in Bend, Oregon and the surrounding wilderness. With all of these elements, readers can be certain that something bad is going to happen. But there are so many possibilities. The suspense comes from not knowing which of these things, exactly, will go wrong, or when, or how.
Told from four different points of view, the main storyline concerns three different generations of men on a camping trip, each quite representational of their generation at large, in a way — Paul, a stubborn son of a bitch whose heart attack hasn’t slowed down his drinking, hunting, and work; his son Justin, a schoolteacher who’s never been “man enough” for his father (or his wife); and Graham, a 12-year-old know-it-all Paul intends to mold into a man this weekend by teaching him to drink and hunt (and turning him against his father). The trip is especially poignant because this hallowed camping ground is about to be destroyed to break ground on a new golf course that is just one of many modernizations of this once-untamed land. And not everyone is pleased about this.
The other storyline involves Brian, a former Marine with daddy issues of his own, prone to incapacitating migraines thanks to the shrapnel that struck him in Fallujah, which earned him a Purple Heart. Now he’s disfigured and working as a locksmith, which is how he becomes fixated on Karen, Justin’s unhappy wife. When her husband and son are away on their camping trip, he begins watching her very closely, then following her, and eventually entering her house uninvited while she’s home alone — all while covered in a “hair suit” he stitched together of animal pelts. Needless to say, Brian has become unhinged.
In this way, The Wilding tells parallel stories — one about civilized men encroaching on the wilderness, and one about something wild (Brian) roaming the modern world. (Oh, and don’t forget the threat of that grizzly bear.) Ben Percy writes with deep insight into his cast of characters, particularly the men — their relationships are gnarled and only grow more fascinating as more and more things go wrong. And the Brian character is supremely unsettling.
Does all the tension Percy has built up pay off? Yes and no. The novel is satisfying, a page-turner like the best thrillers, but also with much more on its mind than your average supermarket bestseller. Not every threatening thread comes to a fully-realized conclusion — the end feels a bit rushed, with a few too many questions still raised.
But I highly recommend The Wilding, a novel that’s hard to put down, soon to be directed as a movie by Guillermo Arriaga (the man behind 21 Grams). It most reminded me of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park for its theme of man versus nature and also the terror and striking imagery evoked by a few scenes.