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BOOK REVIEW

Fathers, sons, and the pull of the wild

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2010

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Benjamin Percy made some literary waves a few years ago with his short story “Refresh, Refresh,’’ originally published in The Paris Review and anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories 2006’’ and “The Pushcart Prize XXXI.’’ Later, Percy included “Refresh, Refresh’’ in a collection of the same name. In the best stories of that book, men battle their inner selves, wrestle the harsh elements of central Oregon, and struggle in their relationships with their fathers.

And so they fight on in “The Wilding,’’ Percy’s first novel, an adventure story whose central question concerns the mystery of life: “Who you’ll end up being consumed by? Or what you’ll end up consuming?’’

In answer, Percy sends three generations of the Caves family, father, son, and grandson, on what should be an ordinary camping, fishing, and hiking trip in the woods of Echo Canyon. But these dark and deep Oregon woods promise to be anything but lovely: Fraught with peril, they hide dead human bodies. Animals devour weaker animals, hunters kill and eat deer, manly men eat rattlesnakes, and the locals are as menacing as the coyotes, bears, and wolves. If that isn’t enough, there is an undefined evil, something more than just a possible sasquatch, lurking and watching in the woods.

Justin and his father, Paul, don’t get along and haven’t for years. Paul is a bully who believes that rearing a child is no different from raising a dog. He treats his dog better than he treats his son or his grandson, Graham. Justin tries, with little success, to treat Graham in a way other than how his own father raised him. But what success could Justin possibly have standing up to such a steely father? Despite their many differences, Justin hopes to work things out with his father on this trip, their last one to undeveloped Echo Canyon.

There, Paul is part of the development crew that’s putting in a golf course, a casino, and a lodge. It’s part of Percy’s consumption argument. This time, instead of animals and humans gobbling each other, it’s man and his heavy machinery: bulldozers, backhoes, and front-end loaders chomping and swallowing up the woods.

Justin is not only hamstrung by a poor father-son relationship, but he and his wife, Karen, aren’t getting along. Karen despises Paul, and, of course, she’s against 12-year-old Graham going on the trip. She agrees to let the boy go after warning Justin, “Don’t let [Paul] bully Graham the way he bullies you.’’

Karen is in for an adventure herself. While the boys are gone, she’s pursued by two men. One is Bobby, Paul’s partner in the canyon development. He’s an older, rich, and powerful man who tries to seduce Karen. His gaze at Karen is “hungry and probing.’’ When he propositions her at dinner, Karen asks if she’s only meat to him. He answers, “We’re all meat, Karen,’’ which doesn’t get him very far. But that doesn’t stop Bobby from inviting himself to her house. Karen’s other pursuer, Brian, is a sinister stalker. He’s a damaged veteran of the Iraq war who is “wrong in the head.’’ Obsessed with Karen, he peeks in windows and spies on her with a riflescope as she jogs. He’s abnormally preoccupied with sex and animal hair, and he’s sewn together a hair suit that he eventually wears in pursuit of Karen, appearing, to the locals, to be Bigfoot.

There are times when Brian nearly turns into a laughingstock of a character, but Percy manages to tread that grotesque-clown path adroitly. Likewise, Percy tells his adventure story in prose that doesn’t pound its consumption themes into your brain; instead, his writing is as natural, dark, and deep as the woods he writes about. At 31, Percy is as promising a writer as anyone on a certain New York magazine’s list of promising writers under 40.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

THE WILDING By Benjamin Percy

Graywolf, 288 pp., $23