In Benjamin Percy’s first novel, The Wilding, whether his characters are trying to protect a child, seek revenge or look for love and normalcy, when raw, unbridled emotions kick in, the wild surfaces.
Justin is a high-school English teacher whose wife, Karen, has recently miscarried their second child. As though the loss opened his eyes, Justin realizes that he and his wife—who finds him too tame—have been drifting apart for a long time. In an effort to finally connect with his father, Paul (a man’s man who owns his construction company, lifts weights in his basement, hunts, and who always seems to be disappointed in his son), Justin agrees to go on a weekend hunting trip, bringing along his own son, Graham. Echo Canyon, where Paul and Justin have always hunted, will be razed on Monday to make way for a luxurious golf course. They want to enjoy all it has to offer one last time, but it has more to offer than a few dears and countless bugs.
Meanwhile, Brian, a locksmith, has fallen for Karen whom he met when Justin accidentally locked her out of the house. An Iraq vet with a hole in his head, Brian has trouble controlling his emotions. His wild, violent side is ever lurking beneath the fury disguise he has made from the pelts of various small animals.
From the very beginning, Percy, author of the short-story collection Refresh, Refresh, sets up characters that are believable, three-dimensional and pitiful. Unfortunately, the characters, except for Brian, evolve predictably, and not equally. Justin finally becomes a man as his father, in true Ahab fashion, becomes obsessed and self-destructive. Graham, a bookworm with a digital camera, bests his father when firing a gun, to his grandfather’s deep pleasure. And Karen—though strong and appealing in the beginning—withers and becomes a shell of a woman. She stops acting, starts reacting, and Justin’s wilding seems to be enough for her to want to work things out (though it’s hard to say for sure as her point of view is no longer considered by the end of the novel).
Skillfully written and developed, The Wilding is a gripping first novel that makes readers ferociously hungry to now what will happen next. The fear that envelops the novel as each storyline unfolds is real and the tension is deftly built up. Unfortunately, as much as the main plot line (Paul, Justin and Graham v. wild) has a solid ending, the secondary one (Brian v. Karen) fizzles away after a tremendous build up, as though it’s presence became less and less important as the main plot line careened to its inevitable ending—a somewhat unsatisfying (because predictable) ending.
In the end, The Wilding is an entertaining, though stressful, romp through the wild, where men become men and women disappear.