November 10, 2010
JE: I was stoked to get my hands on a copy of The Wilding from Graywolf’s Marisa Atkinson when I was in Denver for the Mountains and Plains Indie Booksellers show a few weeks back. A lot of people are talking about this book -people I listen to. Some of them are comparing The Wilding to James Dickey’s spare and creepy masterpiece, Deliverance.
Percy’s muse is central Oregon, an area I’m quite familiar with, having spent a lot of time down there (between Bend and the high desert in Christmas Valley to the south). Like Dickey’s fictional Cahulawassee River Valley, Percy’s setting for The Wilding, Echo Canyon, is a rugged wilderness slated for destruction. Because I hate writing exposition, here’s a short synopsis of The Wilding from PW’s starred review of the book:
The plot concerns a hunting trip taken by Justin Caves and his sixth-grade son, Graham, with Justin’s bullying father, Paul, a passionate outdoorsman in failing health who’s determined to spend one last weekend in the Echo Canyon before real estate developer Bobby Fremont turns the sublime pocket of wilderness into a golfing resort. Justin, a high school English teacher, has hit an almost terminally rough patch in his marriage to Karen, who, while the boys camp, contemplates an affair with Bobby, though she may have bigger problems with wounded Iraq war vet Brian, a case study in creepy stalker. The men, meanwhile, are being tracked by a beast and must contend with a vengeful roughneck roaming the woods.
Maybe what I like most about The Wilding is this: something actually happens! Some might even argue too much happens. This novel is full of adventure, suspense, and horror. Sometimes when writers juggle points-of-view it serves mostly to divert the reader from an otherwise static narrative. It’s a little trick we use in a pinch. But Percy, like Dickey, like Jack London, knows how to move a story. The Wilding is a page-turner in the best sense. There were moments when I was tempted to skip ahead. Nothing wrong with that kind of narrative momentum. But also I wanted to linger, because Percy writes well, in language that is crisp and nuanced, but not overwrought or self-congratulatory, and because Percy’s characters beg me to understand them, to follow them into their dark places. Though he overplays his hand at times with the club and fang theme, and the action is owing to a convenient wealth of wildlife at nearly every juncture (rattlesnakes underfoot, bucks moseying by, owls all over the place, vultures loitering, grizzly bears, and rednecks stalking them), it is Percy’s well-drawn self-conscious characters, and his tremendous writing which shine through. The Wilding is a highly compelling read, by a writer who is going to be around a long time.