Paying the blood price
Goat Mountain: A Novel
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