How far would you go to save the life of someone you loved? The answer, like everything else about Percival Everett’s new novel, isn’t as simple as it might first appear. Wounded tells the story of John Hunt, a widowed Wyoming cowboy who enjoys a life of quiet isolation, tending to his horses and land with only his elderly uncle for company. When a gay college student is found brutally murdered in a nearby canyon, followed by the arrival in town of two bigoted troublemakers, Hunt’s carefully ordered existence begins to unravel. Even as he finds love with a female rancher, a series of ominous incidents increasingly threatens the safety of those around him, including his Native American neighbors and his newly acquired ranch hand, David. David’s disappearance leads to the book’s terrifying climax, as Hunt goes in search of both his missing friend and the homophobic thugs who may have abducted him.
Despite its prosaic opening scenes, Wounded builds to a genuinely shocking, and disturbing, conclusion. Everett ratchets up the tension with an expert hand, creating a powerful mood of foreboding while describing largely everyday occurrences. In Hunt he creates a complex portrait of a man desperately struggling to maintain reason in the face of chaos. Hunt isn’t exactly your average cowboy: A prep school—educated Berkeley grad with a love of Klee and Kandinsky, he raises horses in the middle of nowhere by choice. And, oh yeah, he happens to be black. (No problem—the miraculously tolerant locals accept him as one of their own.) His response to most events is “It’s none of my business,” his preferred activity to stay on the sidelines. Effortlessly commanding respect from his fellow ranchers, Hunt always seems to be in control—yet even he is rendered powerless when hatred and prejudice intrude on his Western idyll.
As Everett demonstrates, almost everything Hunt has believed in ultimately turns out to be false: the decency of the townspeople, the kindness of his uncle, his own invincibility. Hunt is a truly unreliable narrator, not because he sets out to deceive the reader, but because he has so thoroughly deceived himself. Unlike many of Everett’s previous novels,
Wounded is formally conventional, lacking the experimental trappings this professor of literary theory (and avowed modernist) often adopts. The style throughout is unadorned, but all the more convincing for that. Everett lures us into the cozy world of his characters only to pull the rug out from under us at the last, exposing a reality so harsh that it can barely be expressed in words. Or, as Hunt’s uncle succinctly puts it, “Talking is over.”