Sunday, October 10, 2010

"The Wilding," by Benjamin Percy

It is possible to pick up Benjamin Percy’s The Wilding and be struck with déjà vu. There is a lot of familiar territory covered in these pages, whether you are a fan of Percy or not. And this is not a bad thing.

For starters, entire chunks of narrative in The Wilding previously appeared in the 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh. This kind of repetition is not easy to prepare oneself for. Recognizable passages can be viewed in a new light when placed in a different context, or with new characters inserted. Sometimes it feels like watching the entire film after memorizing the teaser trailer. Other times it’s like looking into a parallel universe, an alternate history of small, hypothetical changes butterflying in unforeseen directions.

The set-up is commonplace enough. There is a strained marriage between a browbeaten man and a woman who doesn’t know what she wants anymore. There is their child, caught in the crossfire, forging his own identity. There is a man struggling to readjust to civilian life after serving in Iraq. A community is torn between its traditional roots and the advantages of urbanization. Even if you are not familiar with Percy’s short stories, it may be tempting to guess where the plot is heading. And just when things drift closer to cliché, someone digs a homemade Bigfoot costume out of their closet and goes running through the forest. Thus is the genius of Benjamin Percy.

Like Refresh, Refresh before it, The Wilding is as accessible as literary fiction can possibly be. Big things happen while the story stays character-driven. The prose flourishes in the right places without losing narrative momentum. Themes like environmentalism and nature-versus-nurture are evident but never overbearing. Characters are identifiable and sympathetic. The stakes are real. Suspense is palpable. It is an easy book to lose yourself in.

Percy is a rising literary star and it is easy to see why. This is his first novel, and he has already received the Pushcart Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and the Whiting Writers’ Award. These accolades aren’t the only evidence of his talent, though. Pick up The Wilding and see a literary novel, and thriller novel, and even an environmental novel done right.

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