Man versus Nature is one of five original narrative conflicts, and over the years stories and novels about the interaction between humans and the wild have been piling up. Ben Percy’s aim in his debut novel, The Wilding (Graywolf Press), is to establish himself among the great nature writers, as is made clear by an opening page of epigraphs that reference William Kittredge, Wallace Stegner, and Deliverance author James Dickey.
Percy’s success at blazing his own trail in the game of nature writing varies. The Wilding contains three distinct, though interlocking, narratives. Each portrays the role that nature or the wild can play in human life, but each one is not equal.
The meatiest arc belongs to a group of hunters who seek out nature by wandering out into Echo Canyon: a Native American reserve that will soon be torn down. The hunting party includes Justin Caves, the central character–a seemingly nice enough English teacher whose interest in nature seem perfunctory; his father, Paul, who is the real outdoorsman and the leader of the trip; and lastly, there is Graham, Justin’s son, who is given a camera by his mother and a gun by his grandfather. The goal is for Graham to shoot a buck and become a man, but Justin’s personal goal is to treat Graham in a caring way that will show his father the proper way to nurture a child. Clearly, Justin has some issues—in fact he still has nightmares about a deer that his father made him kill many years ago.
Now, fathers and sons going out to the woods to hunt is apparently a rite of passage, but writing a story about that rite of passage also seems to be a rite of passage for a lot of Midwestern and Western writers. Percy’s contribution to this trope comes off, structurally, a little dull. The characters seem so obviously at odds with each other that it’s confusing why they thought the trip was a good idea. The other problematic issue lies in the Echo Canyon question. Much of the first half of the book is dedicated to understanding why the land is important. Percy even brings in a Native American named Tom Bear Claws to speak on behalf on the land and its native inhabitants. (This scene is unfortunately reminiscent of the movie Ernest Goes to Camp.) And even though this set-up turns out to be a ruse, there are a lot of pages wasted not doing what Percy does best.
Percy, once in the woods, gets more comfortable and demands attention. These pages are more precise, image-driven, and tense. But, the tension rises not only from the found half-eaten body or the vandalizing yokel or the markings of a grizzly bear, but from Justin and his father arguing about the best way to deal with these threats—an argument that Justin loses so often that he begins to lose the attention of his own son. Of course, these threats build until Justin must face them head on, manifested in a chilling entry of the bear from the darkness:
“Justin snatches up another log and tosses it on the fire, a little too roughly, sending a gnat clod of sparks into the air. The wood is dry and porous and a few seconds later the flames rise up in a gentle roar, playing orange light across the canyon walls and into the darker corners of the forest. Out of which steps the bear.
“One minute it wasn’t there and the next minute it is, as if a trapdoor has opened in the ceiling of the night, depositing it at the edge of the clearing, twenty yards away. In the heat waves thrown by the fire, the bear shimmers, like something unreal.”