Pay­ing the blood price

Goat Moun­tain: A Novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Free­man

By David Vann Text Pub­lish­ing, 256pp, $29.95

Tbe­come a un­fallen.

It’s hard to think of an Amer­i­can writer who knows this more in­ti­mately than David Vann. The Alaska that rises from his pages bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to Sarah Palin’s hunt­ing par­adise. It is a state full of mis­fits and vi­o­lent, bit­ter fish­er­men. The far­thest lip of the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent, it is where dreams go to die.

As they did, in fact, for Vann’s fam­ily. His 2008 de­but fic­tion col­lec­tion, Leg­end of a Sui­cide, cir­cles and re­fracts the cen­tral in­ci­dent of his life. Vann’s fa­ther, a suc­cess­ful den­tist with wild dreams of sail­ing the world and liv­ing off the land, re­treated to the woods be­yond Ketchikan. He lured his son, the fu­ture writer, there, even though the younger Vann and his mother had moved then to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The ex­per­i­ment was a fail­ure and Vann’s fa­ther killed him­self.

Leg­end of a Sui­cide does not sim­ply retell this story. It turns the tale in­side out, mythol­o­gises it and tun­nels to its eerie sym­bolic core. Is a fa­ther who takes his own life a fa­ther at all?

Clearly, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, the sui­cide haunts Vann. In his first book A Mile Down (2005), a mem­oir of life at sea, he de­scribes how con­vinced he was for years he would do the same. He found him­self re­peat­ing his HE lure of else­where sat­u­rates the Amer­i­can myth, where es­cape is not al­ways just es­cape but the prom­ise of a fresh start, too. In ex­tremis, this in­stinct for flight can long­ing for pu­rity, for a world fa­ther’s be­hav­iour. He had ‘‘ a sim­i­lar dream of want­ing to in­vent his own life’’.

One does not need to brush up on Freud to see Vann has found this elu­sive way of liv­ing in writ­ing. He has not yet run out of ma­te­rial, ei­ther. It seems un­likely now that will hap­pen. For in his past four books it has be­come clear what at first seemed the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal core of Vann’s writ­ing is in fact its crust.

Cari­bou Is­land (2011) bor­rowed the facts of another sui­cide in Vann’s fam­ily to med­i­tate on the pres­sure im­prac­ti­cal dreams place on mar­riage. Gary and Irene, the cen­tral char­ac­ters, are liv­ing in Ketchikan but try­ing to build a sum­mer cabin on a nearby is­land. Gary, a failed aca­demic, is, like so many Vann char­ac­ters, chas­ing a fan­tasy of a life. ‘‘ What Gary wanted was the imag­ined vil­lage,’’ Vann writes, ‘‘ the re­turn to an idyl­lic time when he could have a role, a set task, as black­smith or baker or singer of a peo­ple’s sto­ries.’’

He doesn’t find it, of course. ‘‘ The real Alaska didn’t seem to ex­ist,’’ Gary dis­cov­ers. ‘‘ No one seemed to have any in­ter­est in the kind of hon­est and dif­fi­cult fron­tier life he would have liked to muse on . . . none of them evoked the vil­lage.’’

In Dirt (2012) Vann pushed this in­stinct — for re­treat, for look­ing not at the world as it is, but as the ideal one wants it to be — to a log­i­cal con­clu­sion. A boy liv­ing in Sacra­mento study­ing Bud­dhism tips over into vi­o­lent fas­cism. Any tie to the past is an im­ped­i­ment. ‘‘ You think you’re some­one now,’’ his mother shouts at him af­ter he locks her up for in­ter­fer­ing with his quest. ‘‘ But it’s only be­cause you can put your mem­o­ries to­gether. You put them to­gether and you think that makes some­thing. But take away the mem­o­ries, or even scram­ble them out of or­der, and there’s noth­ing left.’’

As Vann’s ex­plo­ration of how far from shore one can go grows more the­o­ret­i­cal, his lan­guage has be­come more ab­stract. The sen­tences in Leg­end of a Sui­cide are lake-wa­ter clear, stripped of quo­ta­tion marks, rem­i­nis­cent of Hem­ing­way: ‘‘ It was cold, but there was a kind of com­fort to this place in the way it en­closed . . . The gray was ev­ery­where and they were a part of it.’’

In Cari­bou Is­land there are frag­ments, shards, and na­ture has be­come men­ac­ing. ‘‘ You could be­lieve in mon­sters if you had a big enough net,’’ Vann writes of fish­ing. ‘‘ The ocean an im­men­sity, but they were cap­tur­ing a small part of it.’’

In Goat Moun­tain, Vann’s new novel, his stylis­tic evo­lu­tion reaches its end­point. The tale of a hunt­ing trip in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia that goes awry, the book reads like an at­tempt to reach back to a pre-lin­guis­tic reg­is­ter. The first para­graph doesn’t con­tain a sin­gle com­plete sen­tence, just in­for­ma­tional clus­ters, re­fracted like poetry. The sec­ond con­tin­ues in this vein. ‘‘ Kneel­ing on a mattress tied over the pickup bed, all the camp­ing gear be­neath. North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, 1978. Grip­ping through lurches and bends, the metal hot even in the morn­ing.’’

The story emerges with the riv­et­ing prim­i­tivism of a sto­ry­boarded cave paint­ing. An 11-year-old boy, his fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and a fam­ily friend are on a hunt to shoot the boy’s first deer. We’re some­where in north­ern

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