It’s likely that the people who rail against development have never truly been threatened by the wild. Justin, the man in the crosshairs of civilization and nature in Benjamin Percy’s debut novel, knows that a hunting weekend with his rugged father Paul and his bookish son Graham can be as enchanting as it can be terrifying. Against the wishes of his wife, who remains behind in rapidly gentrifying Bend, Oregon, Justin takes Graham on what may be the final hunting trip to his father’s hunting grounds in Echo Canyon. Graham learns to shoot a gun and gut a deer, Justin grapples with his father’s alpha-dog dominance, and the wilderness brings out a grizzly bear, a rogue native and the wild in each other. Like most testosterone-laden weekends, it’s as much about male bonding as male breaking, with Justin allowing his son to seek Paul’s approval as long as he doesn’t subject himself to Paul’s bullying, as Justin has done.
Percy laces these juxtapositions throughout: the relationship is loving but full of resentments, the canyon is wondrous yet dangerous, their decisions hew to the honor code of men despite its illogic. As intense as it is, both psychologically and physically, Percy’s greatest success is maintaining the smooth evenness of his prose. The phenomena of male relationships are rendered as simply and elegantly as the natural world: “The heat is gone, replaced by cool mountain air that makes breathing feel like drinking.” Percy puts you there in place and in psyche. Where the narrative stumbles is the shifting back to his wife, Karen, in Bend. It’s an interesting contrast, the internal restiveness of someone discontented with middle age and her marriage. It could have sufficed without the narrative of Karen’s stalker, Brian, a young outdoorsman and Iraqi veteran with a hole in his head that causes him to wear a suit of skinned animals that gives him erections. Civilization, to the diminutive Sasquatch, is the wild, and that’s something to be afraid of. (Robert Duffer)
By Benjamin Percy
Graywolf Press, $23, 288 pages