“Man Versus Human Nature”
A Review of
The Wilding: A Novel.
By Benjamin Percy.
Reviewed by Greg Schreur.
Regardless of your views on evolution, there is no denying that humankind has evolved since the days of hunting and gathering—or even if you prefer, since the days of our great-great-grandparents. As history marched on, as civilizations developed and sought to regulate human behavior and as technologies developed and separated us more and more from the daily grind of basic survival, we became more and more domesticated.
Our shampoos smell pretty and come with directions. Our food is stuffed into grocery carts or ordered from menus. Our experiences with nature are as likely to occur in IMAX theaters as not. In our litigious, urbanized, technologized, cellophane-wrapped society, we’ve placed a lid on human nature. And just like the animals we’ve taken into our homes, our more basic instincts lurk beneath a civilized façade and tend to emerge only in more extreme or focused situations.
The Wilding explores the question of what happens to us when something we value or some part of us is lost or missing or taken away. In short, what are the more natural, basic instincts that will emerge? Percy alternates points of view between a mother who delivers a still-born child, an injured Iraq War veteran, and a Starbucks-loving high school English teacher on a hunting trip with his son and his father. Each of these characters has been psychologically and physically jarred or removed from their natural habitats. As a result, we catch glimpses of their true natures and the wildness these natures contain.
This theme becomes apparent very early on in the lines of a Native American poem: “The light of the forest is red. The night’s wolves run through it and the day’s men recoil from it. Under the dark cover of the trees, things get lost and trapped and eaten. The light of the mind is red, too.” Parallels between the natural world and human nature abound and become impossible to overlook. Nowhere is this more obvious than when one of the characters begins roaming the neighborhood in a homemade animal suit. Regularly throughout the novel, the natural world and the human world overlap of collide.
The alternating point of view keeps the story moving and adds universality to the tale: this is not just one isolated case; rather, we are all susceptible, vulnerable. This condition is a shared one. Most of us are removed from the natural world. We live in cities or subdivisions, and even if our homes are situated in natural settings, we have filtered and insulated and manicured these settings. And so for most of us the basic wildness of our natural selves only emerges when tragedy strikes, such as with a stillbirth.
The setting for the novel, as with much of Percy’s previous work, is the wilderness of central Oregon. The characters’ hometown of Bend is almost surrounded by national forest. Echo Canyon, an area in the Ochoco Mountains, is the scene of the men’s hunting trip and the site of an imminent development project. Setting figures prominently, and Percy describes and uses it well. The danger when writing of nature, particularly writing of its being lost to development, is romanticizing its beauty while forgetting that there are obvious reasons that society has increasingly insulated itself from its inherent dangers. Percy allows the setting to provide context without caricaturing it.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should. From the epigraph, to the basic plot and more subtle allusions, The Wilding pays homage to Deliverance. This is not a new story, if such a thing even exists, and there are no groundbreaking insights into human nature. Rather, it is an age-old story being retold by one of our nation’s new young talents. Percy is one of those writers who deserve our attention; if you haven’t checked out his collection of stories Refresh, Refresh, you owe it to yourself do so.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Percy’s novel is that all of this encapsulated within an engaging and suspenseful story. The term “page-turner” is clichéd and rather lame. Instead, I know when the suspense of a story has me in its grips when I have to cover the unread page to keep my eyes from skimming ahead to find out what happens. All of this is to say that the book works on both literal and figurative levels. Whether you prefer to read for a reflection upon the human condition or merely to be entertained, you are not likely to be disappointed.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com