Some say the loss of greatest consequence for the modern male is the rite of passage. College hazing rituals, the football field, skateboard parks don’t cut it. What’s needed is a confrontation with self at the most basic level. What’s missing is a battle for survival that, once won, better readies the male for all that life throws at him.

“The Wilding,” by Benjamin Percy. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis MN, 2010. 258 pages. $23.


Some say the loss of greatest consequence for the modern male is the rite of passage. College hazing rituals, the football field, skateboard parks don’t cut it. What’s needed is a confrontation with self at the most basic level. What’s missing is a battle for survival that, once won, better readies the male for all that life throws at him.


The males in Benjamin Percy’s page-turner “The Wilding” are a sorry lot. Their emotional unraveling and the reconfiguring of spirit are stunning to witness. Percy pits them against the dark and menacing woods of central Oregon, a hungry and disoriented grizzly, an enraged resident whose beloved woods are about to be turned into a resort for the pampered elite and a crazed veteran from Iraq for whom these endangered woods is the only safe place.


Percy is very good at wreaking havoc with his many interconnected plots and then remaking, metaphorically and literally. He is also a courageous realistic who presents unpalatable truths.


Confronting not just their precarious survival but also their understanding of what’s dear to them are a grandfather, son and grandson who take to the woods for one last weekend of hunting and fishing. On Monday, the destruction of the woods begins.


Justin, a hapless and unlikable schoolteacher whose wife considers him an “idiot,” comes off as just that. His bookworm son Graham makes good use of book knowledge as well as his clear and uncomplicated sense of priorities. The macho, bullying Paul, Justin’s father, taunts and dares, knowing the two males he presses are in need of lessons. Foolhardy despite Paul’s and Justin’s previous time in the woods together, this trio is primed for ultimate comeuppance. A hunting dog — Boo — trained to pursue at any cost, figures prominently in this struggle as well.


Justin’s wife Karen seems to have a good sense of self and the situation. She’s a runner, she eats only organic and she’s physically and emotionally astute — a live and reactive nerve ending. She knows the danger lies not as much in the woods as in Paul, the unreliable elder whom Justin cannot yet assert himself to. Karen is less a complete character than a touchstone. She signals all that’s off balance in this story including the marriage, the business deal that will allow the woods to be razed, the dangerous Paul.


Other characters that worry us are Brian, a veteran home from Iraq. He suffers from brain damage. Yet he sees in Karen a pureness and goodness that draws him to her. He stalks her. Bobby is the other male drawn to Karen. He’s an obnoxious partner in the development of the golf resort and he believes he’s entitled to Karen who, by virtue of her long runs and weight lifting, is in great shape.


The weekend in the woods makes up the bulk of the story, which is told through each of the characters’ points of view. It’s a tribute to Percy that these characters, most notably Justin, believably evolve as they do.


Historically we know, from the plight of wolves and bear and coyotes and everything else that has been endangered, what threatens man, man destroys. In “The Wilding” we leave the woods tamed. Hapless men driven by weakness are still powerful men. What they leave behind is less than they started with. Rites of passage for the next generation are very possibly the video games Graham reluctantly abandons upon entering the woods.


Rae Francoeur can be reached at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.