Wounded

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834

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.

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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 been torched in a senseless act of destruction. David Thayer arrives to heal the wounds of his broken relationship. Morgan Reece takes up residence after the death of her mother.

Just as horses find him to be a calming force, people are drawn to John’s quiet authority. A man of few words but strong of character, independent of mind, and compassionate to those victimized by others, John Hunt fits the mold of the archetypal Western hero. As a man whose deeds are more eloquent than his words, as a rugged individualist in whose care the welfare of others rests, John joins the ranks of such heroic figures as the title character of Owen Wister’s classic novel The Virginian (1902), which is also set in Wyoming, and the tough protagonists in the popular cowboy novels of American fiction writers Zane Grey and Max Brand.

John’s critical reengagement in human affairs reaches a head when it eventually becomes clear that a group of neo-Nazis has taken up residence in the area and that they are the ones responsible for a series of violent acts against minorities, including cattle mutilations and racial slurs written in blood in the snow on a nearby Indian reservationand, as will be discovered at the novel’s end, the death of the gay college student of which Wallace had been accused. They extend their string of malevolent acts by kidnapping David, who has driven to town to get some medicine for Gus. The local authorities, including the slow-witted sheriff, fail to pursue his disappearance aggressively. Then John and his uncle take matters into their own hands.

John’s evolving, increasingly complicated relationship with David is central to the plot. Time and time again, John intercedes on the young man’s behalf. When David’s homophobic father, Howard, arrives at the ranch with his twenty-something girlfriend in tow, David, still reeling from Robert’s infidelity, throws his father’s philandering in his face. In the middle of the night, after a drunken argument with his father, David wanders, partially dressed, outside into the snow. Singlehandedly John tracks him down in the subzero temperatures.

When he finds him, John takes David to the temporary shelter of a nearby cave to help forestall hypothermia. This cave, the subject of John’s recurring dreams, is of major symbolic significance in the text. In fact, the novel begins with the narrator’s attempt to define the essential nature of caves, including what might be regarded as their most frightening aspect“that one can enter.” Emblematic of the deep recesses of selfhood, the cave represents something in John or something in his relationship with his wife that prevents complete intimacy between the two; he wants to explore the cave, but Susie is scared by the very thought of penetrating its interior. Yet, eventually this very same cave provides the setting for John’s first sexual experience with Morgan; it is also in this cave that John strips down to warm the nearly frozen David with his body heat, and David, delirious from the cold, responds to their naked embrace with a kiss on the mouth.

John’s confused reaction to this act is representative of the difficulty many people have with the issue of sexual orientation, especially when it challenges their preconceptions regarding the nature of manhood. In trying to find David on his own, John acknowledges his own complicated affection for the young man. There is between the two an attraction that John does not fully understand, but it makes Morgan uncomfortable despite the fact that John has proposed marriage to her.

In setting out to find David, John also asserts the code of the Old West that it is perfectly justifiable to be one’s own agent of justice. Alone, he rushes out in the snow to rescue David from the cold; later, with only his uncle beside him, he sets out to rescue David from his kidnappers.

Thus, John Hunt joins other self-contained characters in Everett’s Western novels, individuals who find their ultimate purpose in compassionate defense of the welfare of others. David Larson, a transplanted southerner in Walk Me to the Distance (1985), a novel set in Wyoming during the Vietnam War era, participates, however reluctantly, in the lynching of a mentally handicapped man who rapes a Eurasian child abandoned to his initially involuntary care. Bubba, an African American tracker in God’s Country (1994), a novel set in the Old West, repeatedly defends the orphan girl Jake from predators and also determines to avenge the massacre of an innocent American Indian tribe. Robert Hawks, an African American hydrologist in Watershed (1996), a novel set in the modern-day West, slowly takes up the cause of a Native American group whose water supply is being poisoned by a federal project. All four fit the mold of the code hero who is willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. In each case, action is taken on behalf of an oppressed individual or minority group.

Suffering massive internal injuries from the beating that he endured at the hands of the three “rednecks” that have been terrorizing the community, David does not survive his attack. Neither do his killers. While John rushes the unconscious David to the hospital, Uncle Gus and some of their American Indian neighbors take matters into their own hands to prevent any repetition of the group’s destructive behavior.

Elvis Monday, one of the Indian ranchers bedeviled by the neo-Nazis, delivers the novel’s final message when he tells John, in justification of their disposal of this cadre of right-wing extremists: “Everyplace is the frontier.” John nods in agreement, and the reader is left to consider the proposition that in a day and age when hate crimes against minorities are more and more common and established governmental safeguards appear less and less effectual, it may be the final recourse of victimized groupsblacks, Indians, and gaysto defend themselves by all necessary means.

As signaled by the novel’s title, a single man, “wounded” by the course his personal life has takenparticularly the loss of his wife, finds the strength to shelter and defend others “wounded” by prejudice and bigotry. In taking a stand, John rediscovers himself. Like the three-legged coyote pup that he adopts, John admits near the end of the novel, “I can’t recognize my own tracks until I stop moving.”

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1991.

Entertainment Weekly, September 2, 2005, p. 85.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 12 (June 15, 2005): 654.

Library Journal 130, no. 12 (July 1, 2005): 66-67.

Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2005, p. R2.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 18, 2005): 22.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 28 (July 18, 2005): 183.

The Washington Post, September 4, 2005, p. T4.

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