Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Experience Wilderness at the Margins First-Hand in Utah, and in Benjamin Percy's Fine New Novel (And Yes, He's at Boswell on 10/5)

Recently I met with some booksellers at a ski resort called Alta, outside Salt Lake City. It’s only 30 miles out of town, but it is quite rustic, more so in summer, as there really aren’t a lot of people around. It’s not like we were in the middle of nowhere (there was both wifi and cell phone coverage, though it could be spotty), but being without a car and having no stores or housing or offices around us, it’s as close as I get to wilderness. I guess this is a good place to talk about bookseller issues, as there was little else we could do.

OK, it got a little more wilderness-y. We went on a wildflower walk. It was quite beautiful, but I was also intimidated. There were several moose spotted, but for me, the hunting signs scared me even more. I was wearing a black sweater. What was I going to do? Well, apparently I could stay on the right of the road, as hunting was not allowed on the left side. Seemed like a fine line to me.

It was fitting that I had just finished Benjamin Percy’s new novel, The Wilding. I thought there was probably some similarlity between Utah’s landscape and what I imagined to be Bend. The landscape of Percy’s fiction is an area that was once hardscrabble existence, that was invaded by money, from California and to a lesser extent, from the Oregon coast.

The Wilding concerns one particular family who takes a hunting trip into a canyon that is soon to be developed into a resort. Justin is bullied by his dad into going, as well as taking his son Graham. Paul (Dad) is rather an old-fashioned guy, but rather than be upset about losing his hunting area, he’s actually running the construction crew. This makes him particularly unpopular with the townspeople, and in particular, one convenience store attendant.

Justin’s having marital problems as well, particularly since his wife Karen’s second pregnancy ended prematurely. She’s getting a little attention from Bobby, the developer, and also from the locksmith, an Iraqi war vet who’s a bit shell shocked.

So the three boys are in the woods, with lots of unresolved father and son issues, and there are least two crazed men to watch out for. Oh, and a bear. It’s a fascinating story about the friction of civilization at the margins, whether it’s on the edge of civilization, or a war zone, or even masculine ideals.

I was looking at the back of the advance copy I read and was struck by what a good collection of author quotes there were. Not because they liked the book (would you put them on the jacket if they didn’t?) but because they encapsulated the mood and theme of the book, William Kitteredge and Pam Houston for the meditations on wilderness in the American West, and Dan Chaon for the creepiness of Percy’s writing. It’s a tense novel.

It’s also an excellent novel. Percy taught at Marquette before his recent stint at Iowa State. He's the author of two short story collections, The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh. The title story of his second collection was featured in Best American Short Stories, and was adapted into a graphic novel.

The Wilding official goes on sale this coming Tuesday, September 28th. Come here more on Tuesday, October 5th, when Percy appears at Boswell (at 7 PM). We're looking forward to his return. Did I mention it snowed while we were in August?

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