'Tis the season of white male novelists writing about declining marriages. In the suddenly vast shadow of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" stands Benjamin Percy's first novel (after two acclaimed story collections, including "Refresh, Refresh"), "The Wilding," which, like "Freedom," probes the consequences of America's obsession with liberty, both politically and within the family.
Interestingly, Percy paints his Karen and Justin Caves, like Franzen's Berglunds, as a headstrong, regretful wife and a cowed, beleaguered and ultimately redeemed husband. But enough with the Franzen comparisons -- novelists may have to spend the next decade working their way out from under "Freedom," whether or not it deserves such homage.
Karen is a dietitian who works in the Central Oregon Schools, and Justin teaches English and meekly disappoints his gruff, unfeeling, big-game-hunting father, Paul. Karen and Justin have one son, a sixth-grader named Graham, and their marriage is rapidly unraveling, largely due to Karen's long mourning for a miscarried second child.
"The Wilding," set mostly over a few days in and around Bend, Ore., intertwines three converging story lines: Brian, a young Iraq war vet turned locksmith who returns home with a shrapnel hole in his skull and severely diminished social skills, falls for Karen when she gets locked out of her house and he is called to open the door. Unable to handle any meaningful social contact, haunted as he is by visions of war and crushing migraines, he begins stalking her, donning a kind of Bigfoot suit he makes of animal pelts (Percy's descriptions of what it feels like to wear are among the novel's more vivid moments), finding his only peace crouched in the woods by her house.
Meanwhile, Justin and his father, Paul, bring Graham on a hunting trip to Echo Canyon, an old Indian burial ground slated to be turned into a golf course the very next week. While they're gone, Karen contemplates an affair with Bobby Fremont, the developer behind the golf course. Under the auspices of male bonding, and constantly goaded by Paul, who chastises Justin for his fatherly caution, the trio descend deeper into the forest, and into a kind of wildness from which, of course, none of them will ever wholly return.
Percy's prose is thick with metaphors and similes -- he could learn a thing or two from Franzen's easygoing prose -- but he does an extremely good job at maintaining breathless intensity, making, for instance, a battle between Justin, seated at the controls of a backhoe, and a bear surprisingly believable.
Percy may not in fact escape comparisons to Franzen -- there must be a bug for this kind of novel in the air. For both writers, lust for freedom -- from others, but mostly from the self -- can loosen a family from its moorings: Percy maps the dangerous places people go once those ties are cut.
Craig Morgan Teicher's most recent book is "Cradle Book: Stories and Fables." He lives in New York.