By Percival Everett.
Graywolf Press, $23.
When his hired man Wallace is arrested for the brutal murder of a gay man, it doesn't sit right with rancher John Hunt. He didn't particularly like Wallace—a slow and barely competent worker—but the hate crime itself just seems too brutal. It's a grim opening to a grim book, and the first fissure in Hunt's understanding of his status as a black man in his rural Wyoming community.
Hunt's college roommate's son, David, first comes up for the gay-pride rally organized in response to the murder, but then returns, hoping for work. This adoptive family achieves a brief but happy harmony before David's estranged father makes a surprise visit. Then Hunt starts to piece together that Wallace's murder was the beginning of a pattern.
Everett writes about tough topics with a light touch. Hunt is a laconic, no-nonsense narrator, but he's also observant and sensitive. His personality allows the story, political by its nature, to avoid politicking in its execution. Hunt's world is populated with animals that resonate as rich, but quiet symbols: the horse that scares whenever his rider tenses; the donkey that can escape from behind any barrier; the three-legged coyote pup being raised as a dog because she could never survive on her own. If a person's humanity can be seen in how they treat animals, Hunt's tenderness with them speaks volumes.
While it's tempting to compare Wounded to something by Cormac McCarthy or Walter Van Tilburg Clark, in which a brutal landscape makes for brutal men, this book is more about men who resist such pressures with all the humanity they can muster. In the coyote pup is an important lesson: She will never be a dog, but given her injury, the best Hunt can do is treat her like one and hope she'll rise to the occasion. Humanity is here portrayed as weak, but capable; worthy of hope, but not of expectations.—Pete Coco