The Wilding

IN BENJAMIN PERCY’S menacing debut novel, central Oregon becomes a proving ground for men tested to their limits. Scheming businessmen in Bend, Oregon, have earmarked nearby Echo Canyon in the Ochocos Mountains for development, planning to raise vacationland from pristine wilderness. But before the paving and clearcutting begins, Justin Caves and his curious, “[d]elicate” son, Graham, agree to accompany the family’s ornery patriarch, Paul, on one final hunting and camping trip.

“This little guy could use some roughness about him,” Paul says of Graham, hoping a visit to Echo Canyon will toughen up his grandson, a boy who “prefers books to BB guns.”

Paul is a grumpy codger, with a voice “like a distant shout of thunder,” and self-absorbed to the point of recklessness. Paul believes Justin has gone soft over the years and doesn’t want the same to happen to his grandson. So Paul bullies his family toward “the pitted, unscalable walls of the canyon,” pushing them headlong toward a whopping series of wilderness obstacles.

And let’s count these obstacles, because they are numerous. A rattler appears inside the tent. At night alarming sounds come from the forest. And there have been rumors about grizzlies migrating southward into Oregon. The hunters stumble upon one bad omen after another, including a crazed yokel who despises outsiders.

Percy piles on the threats. It’s as though he’s stacking a cord of wood atop his characters’ shoulders to see whether or not they’ll buckle. At times this dark territory can feel forced, but through these pressures Percy ushers his men toward an inevitable crossroads where they must face deep-seated fears. Along the way he does a remarkable job showing the bonds, battles, and emotional fallout between fathers and sons.

Just as Percy demonstrates how men manage danger, he’s equally adept at revealing the odd ways men also create it.

Left behind at home is Justin’s wife, Linda, who is bored in her marriage and desperate for something — or someone — new. Enter Brian, the novel’s most fascinating character. A former Marine, Brian returned from Iraq with PTSD and a “hole in his skull” from a roadside bomb. When Linda casually flirts with him, an unnerving fire ignites inside Brian. Uncomfortable in the civilized world, Brian weaves a hair suit from animal furs and slinks around, stalking Linda like a predator hunting its prey. These are the book’s strangest sections, the most precarious and thrilling, because Percy’s rendering of their psychological dance is masterful.

Percy switches viewpoints often, giving his characters their own episodic chapters. He bookmarks the story with a prologue and an epilogue, bundling loose ties into a neat little bow, but skipping the messy business of repairing a marriage. Still, Percy’s main concern isn’t domestic; it’s elemental, the stuff of men versus mountains.