Two Part Review: The Wilding by Ben Percy (Part Two)

Continued from previous post

A different encounter with nature is embodied by Justin’s wife, Karen, who feels nature come to her.  Her story is less detailed, but it foils the men’s in that she becomes prey instantly. Owls fly in through fireplace on more than one occasion. Men, both old entrepreneurs and slime in pick-up trucks alike, attempt to trap her as she runs along the road. And she is unknowingly stalked throughout the novel by third integral character, Brian.

The goal of nature invading her life eventually helps her overcome the frosty distance that she has put between Justin and herself. This anger developed, generically, from the loss of a child. But at the end, her encounters with all these predators leads her back to the more level-headed Justin, which, like Justin’s arc, suits the story but doesn’t challenge the foundation of nature-writing.

The third strand, belonging to Brian, shows the most daring writing from Percy and pushes this story into innovative territory and away from homage. Brian represents a provocative in-between. Whereas Justin goes to nature and nature comes to Karen, Brian becomes nature; he has created an animal suit, similar to a Halloween ape costume, which he uses to run through the town unfettered. Brian was a military vet—a seemingly thrown-in explanation of his disillusionment—and utilizes the suit as a way from removing himself from the bad parts of humanity, such as ego and philosophy, and accentuating the good part of humanity: animal lust. These scenes move harmoniously between his sad mindset of wanting Karen and not being able to talk with old friends to the freedom he experiences when his erection is pressed against the suit. This character is the strength of the story and an inventive update of the Sasquatch story.

His part culminates in his entering Karen and Justin’s house, a rich scene where Percy communes with the wild in an extraordinary way:

“He moves with such slowness—slowly pulling his feet forward, slowly depressing his weight, making sure he doesn’t thud his boot against an end table or scare a creak out of the floorboards—when touring the house. He sits down on the couch. He gently touches the needles of a cactus. He stands below a mounted deer and stares into its wide and glassy eyes and reaches up to tap one of them before running his hand along its neck, the fur dry and rough.”

This is man who has turned himself into an animal only to return to the world of man in hopes of understanding what he is. Percy’s depth here is remarkable and uniquely provocative.

As a final thought, these three tales together remind the reader of nature’s ubiquitous presence on life, but at the end, The Wilding exposes a world that is anything but wild. All the manmade aspects of life win: The hunters defeat the bear with help from heavy machinery, the cavalier mountain man is left catatonic, and no one can stop the building of a luxury golf course on this crucial land. The wild has lost, which is a very possible and realistic sentiment. But given Percy’s reverent and precise language about the moonlit canyon and deeply rooted trees, why would he embrace it so fully? Although Percy champions nature with his descriptions throughout the book, he refuses to lament its downfall at the end—allowing himself some sort of distance. Percy, like Justin, seems to wrestle with nature’s usefulness—an idea that separates him from those aforementioned pioneers, for better or worse.  Had he channeled Brian—or his desperate need for nature and its lawlessness—Percy could have moved past an entertaining read and into a more poignant exploration of the wild.

-Lewis DeJong

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