Joe Owens: The Last Book I Loved, The Wilding

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Benjamin Percy can probably kick my ass.  At least his prose gives me no reason to believe otherwise.

Equal parts grit, subtlety and a silver-tongued bravura, Percy’s style makes me kind of want to call him a prosaic assassin if only prosaic assassin didn’t sound like a new flavor of Cheetos.  But there is a lot more to The Wilding than sheer alpha-male badassery, a lot more.

The Wilding, Percy’s debut novel, ostensibly picks up where his short story, “The Woods” leaves off.  Or rather, it expands on the universe Percy first explored in “The Woods,” and then proceeds to kick the reader’s ass in the process of doing so; simultaneously managing to charm and disturb the reader so they don’t know they’ve been stylistically assaulted until after the fact.

While it might be a bit premature, I personally get the feeling people of the more literary ilk will soon be — if they haven’t been already — tossing Percy’s name around with that of the gritty, iconic frontiers writer, Cormac McCarthy, as well as writerly contemporary in the genre of “real man’s men,” Wells Tower, not to mention James Dickey.  Few writers under forty are doing what Percy is doing stylistically, which is producing a silky prosaic style blended seemingly effortlessly with the rugged and savage ways of the wild, especially instances where man intrudes into said wild — nature inevitably exacts a swift and hefty toll.

For an example of this, one needs look no further than the novel’s opening chapter:

These two teenage girls from Prineville, left their food and cooking supplies out, rather than washing them and bagging them and hanging them from the highest branch of a juniper tree… One slash of [the bear’s] claws parted the nylon like a zipper. Their screams didn’t scare it away, only encouraged it, as it fit its jaws around the head of one girl, chewing her, her scalp finally sliding off her skull.

Just grisly. And this is definitely not the last time in the novel that details like this are provided. The level of horrific detail Percy includes in his writing would make him a prime candidate, one would think, as the perfect literary version of a cover band for Cormac McCarthy; but his voice is so singularly strong that he’d likely say, “Thank you, but no-fucking-thank-you.”  Percy shows the reader that he is definitively his own writer’s writer.

The Wilding ultimately centers on the character of high school English teacher, Justin Caves, and the tumultuous relationships he has, both with his bullying outdoorsman father, Paul, and his wife, Karen. Justin, Paul, and Graham, Justin’s son, go on a hunting trip to Echo Canyon for the weekend where, of course, nothing goes as planned.  While away, Karen is left alone to deal with Iraq War veteran, locksmith and stalker extraordinaire, Brian — who very clearly suffers from post traumatic stress disorder — after Karen finds herself locked out of her house.  Brian is unusually creepy in that, in addition to creating his own copies of women’s house keys, he enjoys gallivanting around the woods in a patchwork fur suit he’s stitched together from the pelts of various small-game animals he’s killed.

Meanwhile, in Echo Canyon, the men come upon a dead body — bones and boots by this point — and are forced to contend with being tracked by a wild beast. A review from Publisher’s Weekly review states, “[The Wilding’s] as close as you can get to a contemporary Deliverance,” which is not too far off the mark.

Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that Percy truly knows and understands how to keep his readers engaged.  It would perhaps be an even bigger understatement to say that Percy simply writes sentences.  The man is truly a sentence-to-sentence artisan as well.  Even after you’ve [loosely] made a contract with yourself that “this will absolutely be the last paragraph I read before turning out the lamp,” Percy sinks his skillfully-hooked grapnels into you one more time, daring you to put the book down:

“Their tires eat up the road and for a while their talk dies out and gives way to an uneasy kind of anticipation; ” and,

“The vision brings with it a shifting sensation, as though the drudgery of his life is about to change, to take on a new dimension, all because of her, and, At last the heat is gone, replaced by cool mountain air that makes breathing feel like drinking, as well as, Justin imagines the dead man collecting his bones and rising up to greet them.”

Unputdownable.

One of The Wilding’s underlying themes, it seems to me, is the ultimate out-of-touchnesspeople have become in relationship to the world.  Man has become afraid of the wild because, on a visceral level, he truly no longer understands it.  He has positioned himself as “other” to nature, rather than simply understanding that he is a part of it.  This idea is not lost on Percy.  He  understands this completely and plays with our nature-detached psyches and the fear that is resultant from it.  We fear the wild things that go bump in the night because we no longer understand them.  Percy, however, hasn’t lost touch with that element of himself, the element that keeps him connected to the “real world.”

In response to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, Dzanc Books came up with their own list of “20 Writers to Watch;” and they clearly knew what they were talking about when they included Benjamin Percy in the mix.  Percy is Dzanc’s own answer to The New Yorker’s selection of Wells Tower; and, in my opinion, Percy is the only author today giving Tower a run for his money as the contemporary American short story writer.

Nearly all of this authorial mojo from the realm of Percy’s short stories transfers into his debut novel.  In fact, Percy is doing, in his work, considerably well a great deal of things that most writers of his generation don’t do at all — possibly because they simply can’t do because they lack the experience of going toe-to-toe with nature in its most primitive of settings.

The high desert of Central Oregon, where Benjamin Percy was born, and Ames, Iowa, where he lives and teaches now, are both a long way from New York City; and I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have it any other way.  Ultimately, Percy is laying down a lot of really fantastic stuff that you should probably be picking up.


Joseph Michael Owens has written for PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, The Houston Literary Review, and for Grey Sparrow Journal, where he is a regular contributor to its “Man on Campus” section and as well as a technical editor. Additionally, his short story “We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don’t” was nominated for Dzanc Books‘ Best of the Web 2011 anthology. Joseph also manages the website Category Thirteen, dedicated primarily to the hectic and haptic process of writing. Joe lives in Omaha with five dogs and one wife. More from this author →