Caribou Island author David Vann continues to explore flaws and potential, character tested and revealed, in his latest work, Dirt. The novel, which begins as tense yet funny, ends in nothing short of tragedy—a heartbreaking descent born of wrong choices.

In 1985, 22-year-old Galen lives on a secluded walnut farm in northern California with his mother. The father is missing—Galen never knew him—and Galen has become a figurative husband. They live off a fortune, the extent of which Galen does not know, their days shaped by visits to his dementia-suffering grandmother and drop-ins by his caustic aunt and teenage cousin Jennifer, for whom Galen guiltily pines. The aunt and cousin want the family money, and the relationships are contentious. His mother disclaims her own father’s violent past and the whole clan’s abusive present, while Galen, a New Ager, longs both to embrace the world and to push it away. These simmering resentments and needs boil over during a trip to the family cabin in the mountains.

Ironies abound, and Vann’s sentences and paragraphs are perfectly constructed, drawing you through the text even when everything is standing still. Galen’s life changes over the course of just a few very long days, and the details of these days, the sensitivity to Galen’s every waking moment, are exquisite. This is the kind of book where one stretches out reading the last 40, 30, 10 pages—in this case out of dread, but also love.

Vann’s characterization is complex. Galen is a childish man, weak, full of misplaced strength and endurance wasted on a fruitless quest. From the start, his behavior is strange—but he is charming in his craziness. He is becoming something, delayed; and in his innocence, he has no idea that he could become something terrible. The change is compelling: Even if other readers don’t sympathize with Galen, they will be drawn into his head and these claustrophobic circumstances to see what happens.

This experience is prolonged to the very last page, graceful paragraph, stunning word. Then it reverberates. Vann’s book is art, and not to be missed.

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