272 pages, hardcover: $23.
Graywolf Press, October.
In his debut novel, The Wilding, award-winning writer Benjamin Percy returns to familiar ground -- rural Oregon. After publishing two collections of bold, piercing short stories about the mountain towns and mossy woods of his native state, Percy finds space in The Wilding to fully develop his characters, to explore the depths of violence in both human and wild nature.
His roots as a short-story writer are evident as he skillfully unfolds a series of separate but interlocking tales. In the primary thread, a description of one last hunt in a wild canyon threatened by luxury-resort development, Percy lays bare the complex emotional conflicts of three generations: Justin Caves, a self-doubting suburbanite; his intense and demanding father, Paul; and his tentative, bookish young son, Graham. The three go in search of deer and encounter a menacing bear instead. Their subsequent struggle for survival is echoed by the plight of Justin's wife, Karen, at home but unwittingly pursued by another predator, an Iraq war veteran "with a punctured skull and a scabbed brain."
Percy's other characters hold shades of violence as well -- a conscienceless Indian who's secretly colluding with the developers of sacred Echo Canyon; an ambitious and amoral businessman pushing for his next million and his next conquest; a local redneck furious at the destruction of his hunting grounds. The central Oregon setting itself becomes a character, its dark looming woods adding palpable menace.
The hunting trip is a test for Justin, of "his ability to steady his rifle and his father." He passes that test, just barely, but emerges forever changed: "He still wakes up sometimes believing he is back in the woods: his heap of laundry is a boulder, his cedar chest a stump, his closet a cave that hides some creature hungry for him. He calms his racing pulse -- he feels a little bigger, stronger -- by imagining the trees sawed down to stumps to make room for sunlight and green grass."
Percy's novel perfectly captures our ambiguous attitudes toward the natural world, the tensions between rural and urban, the way that untamed wildness carries both grace and terror.