Anyone who read David Vann's last book, Legend Of A Suicide, will remember the almost-physical impact of that book's climax. The cold shocking revelation that came after a hundred-odd pages of ordinary detail. The moment was like a boulder being dropped into the still lake of the reader's mind and was the first indication of Vann's powerful ability as a writer.
Vann has written several non-fiction books based on the extraordinary events of his own life. Born in Ketchikan, Alaska, Vann's father worked at sea before retraining as a dentist, where he had an affair with his receptionist, breaking up his marriage to Vann's mother, who then moved the young Vann and his sister to California.
Vann's father remarried, then cheated on his new wife, which led to the break-up of that relationship. When Vann was 13, his father shot himself in the head with a 44 magnum while talking on the phone to his second wife.
Caribou Island, is his first novel but continues to mine his personal history. This time he takes another sad family story as his starting point: his grandmother's discovery of her own mother hanging and the murder-suicide of his stepmother's parents.
The book begins with the story of Gary and Irene who, after 30 years of marriage, are finally beginning work on their dream log cabin on the remote Caribou Island.
The cabin is really Gary's dream but Irene is grudgingly going along with it. Nothing seems to come right for them as they struggle with the weather, the transportation of the logs, Irene's mysterious and debilitating headaches.
The cabin is lumpen, ill-fitting and ill-planned, a metaphor for their own marriage.
Their grown-up children Mark and Rhoda both live nearby. Mark is a feckless sort who spends his days as a fisherman and his nights getting stoned with his girlfriend Karen. Rhoda works at the local vets and her partner Jim is a dentist.
While Rhoda spends evenings looking at wedding brochures for the tacitly agreed marriage she and Jim will have, Jim has all sorts of other plans that he puts into action when he meets the beautiful young traveller Monique.
The tangy taste of regret and delusion seeps from these pages, as Gary realises 30 years too late that Irene is the wrong woman for him, while their daughter Rhoda is hurtling headlong into a similarly bad situation.
While Vann's last book dealt with the legacy of his father's suicide, this book deals with another legacy that Vann has admitted to struggling with -- that of his father's infidelities and all of the couples here deal with the idea that 'you can choose who you'll be with but you can't choose who they'll become'.
Alaska is depicted as an agoraphobic nightmare of tiny towns in vast expanses, 'enclaves of despair' as Vann calls them. Nature is a beast that only rarely relents by bestowing the grace of a windless day or a sun-through-the-clouds moment.
The misery is omnipresent, like a low, dull headache, and it's no wonder Vann is compared to Cormac McCarthy. His rendering of the unhappy details of unhappy lives is done with unflinching clarity and beauty, which makes the experience all the more bittersweet.
Whatever about the frenzied tootling that accompanied Jonathan Franzen's doorstop Freedom, Caribou Island is a leaner, meaner and more devastatingly realistic portrayal of family relationships, couples and how life's missed opportunities and regrets can curdle into something altogether more dangerous. And Vann might even be more worthy of the title 'great American novelist'.