224 pages • Faber & Faber • August 14th, 2008 [PB]
Wounded is Percival Everett’s thirteenth novel. It is a first-person narrative told by a rancher, John Hunt, and is set on the Wyoming plains. The plot starts in earnest when Hunt learns of the murder of a young-man, who is strung up on a tree, his throat cut. Hunt’s ranch-hand Wallace is arrested for this homophobic act of murder.
Hunt is an outsider, an observer, whose wife had died six years previously. He lives on a ranch with his seventy-nine year old uncle, Gus, and trains horses. His developing relationship with cowgirl Morgan, and the arrival of his friend’s son David for a gay pride rally held in response to the killing, draws Hunt into a society he had sought to avoid.
That Hunt is black does not figure largely in his thinking, except to remark that he is ‘referred to as the “black rancher”.’ Such definitions are not his primary concern.
This separates him from David’s boyfriend, Robert, who pushes his sexuality to the fore, marking his territory first in front of a waitress, and then one of Hunt’s friends. It also separates Hunt from the white-supremacist rednecks that, he has no doubt, carried out the murder.
Wounded is not a whodunit. The rednecks are clearly as responsible for the murder as they are for killing the cows of a Native American rancher and painting ‘red nigger’ in their blood. Everett’s objective in Wounded is, through the rational and calm voice of Hunt, to use of the isolation of the plains to demythologize, to comprehend that which is divisive.
In reading the coverage of the murder, Hunt writes that the Eastern papers offered ’the implication, if not outright accusation, that the crime was symptomatic of some rural or Western disease of intolerance. I thought, yes, it’s called America. I wondered why the reported rash of fifty rapes in Central Park was not considered a similar indicator of regional moral breakdown.’ For Hunt the problem is not with types of people but that people are people.
As a narrator, Hunt is on the outside, at enough of a remove to watch those who run roughshod over the terrain of their lives whilst wreaking havoc in the process. Many of the characters in the book are synonymous with Felony, the wild horse Hunt is given to train within minutes of finding out about the murder. Everett uses this parallel deftly. Hunt trains the horse to understand that it has its place within a grander scheme, that its life is not merely its own, and that it is not simply about choices but how we are taught to understand our choices.
Wounded is an elegiac, economical book, and as such each page implicitly reinforces Everett’s point that there is no society without individual responsibility. It is also a love story – a love story about a man’s love for the land, the bonds of filial affections that bind us, a young man’s love for an older, more stable one. It is a love story because it is about that which binds us in the face of that which seeks to tear us apart.
“I let him kiss me, felt his shivering face soften to mine. I just wanted him warm, warmer. I couldn’t pull away; I was trying to save his life.“