One of a number of novels that reflect Percival Everett’s interest in the culture of the American West, Wounded focuses on one man’s rediscovery of himself as a result of his reengagement in the lives of others. Cut off from the larger world in part because of geographical distance (his ranch is thirty miles from the nearest town), in part because of race (he is one of very few African Americans in the rural West), and in part because of the psychological and emotional walls that he has built around himself since the death of his wife Susie six years earlier, John Hunt must redirect the course of his life when he is forced to respond to events in the local community.
First, he answers a call from the local sheriff to visit in jail Wallace Castlebury, an apparently aimless, friendless young man “dumber than a bucket of hair.” A hired hand on John’s ranch, Castlebury is accused of the brutal murder of a gay college student, an apparently senseless crime reminiscent of the real-life murder of University of Wyoming undergraduate Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard’s deathhe was savagely beaten and left to die in freezing temperatures along a rural roadfocused international attention on the issue of hate crimes in the United States and provided the subject for the play The Laramie Project (2000) by American dramatist Moises Kaufman, director of the groundbreaking Tectonic Theatre Project.
For a time, John reluctantly serves as Castlebury’s only contact with the outside world; and John’s involvement in the case does not end with Castlebury’s cellblock suicide. The shocking nature of the crime of which he is accused pushes the little town of Highland, Wyoming, into the national spotlight, just as Shepard’s murder exposed Laramie to the broad glare of publicity. Soon people from other parts of the United States begin arriving to attend a rally to condemn the violence sometimes bred from bigotry.
Among them are twenty-year-old David Thayer, the son of an old college chum of John when he was an art history student at the University of California at Berkeley, and his partner, Robert. Although the rally is canceled because of snow, David returns to town a couple of months later, after Robert cheats on him, and he decides to put aside his studies at the University of Illinois for a semester. He is drawn back to Wyoming partly because he responds to the dramatic landscape and partly because he is attracted to John.
The laconic rancher is also an object of interest to his neighbor, Morgan Reece, a part-time community college instructor who has moved back home to take care of her ailing mother. Although he finds her attractive, John is reluctant to get involved with another woman because he blames himself for his wife’s death. Susie was killed by one of the horses that John was training, perhaps in an attempt to prove to her husband that she was not afraid. If any romance is to blossom, Morgan must take the initiative.
It is clear that John is more comfortable with animals than with people. The first half of the novel is peppered with bits of wisdom that he has acquired from his years of training horses, such as the dictum that “the horse isn’t supposed to make decisions.” It comes down to control; John believes that he understands and can therefore control horses, but people are another matter.
The landscape is also an object of fascination and a source of comfort for John, who responds deeply to the “dramatic land, dry, remote, wild.” His ranch is just east of the Red Desert, which encompasses six million acres in the southwest corner of Wyoming. “Every time I come up here and look at that,” John tells David at one point in the novel, “I know my place in the world.” John himself admits that he has “no affection necessarily for the history of the people” of the West. “It [is] the land for me,” John affirms. It may, however, be the sheer inhospitality of the landscape that necessitates some sort of communal bonding; to survive in this space, people need to band together in common cause.
This is one lesson that John finally learns. As the novel progresses, his ranch becomes a kind of sanctuary. After Susie’s death, John took in his seventy-nine-year-old Uncle Gus, who had spent eleven years in prison for the killing of his wife’s white rapist. In short succession, John brings home a crippled coyote pup, the only surviving member of her family, whose lair had...
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