Saturday 18 November 2017

Review: Fiction: Dirt by David Vann

Heinemann, €15.85, pbk, 256 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

American author David Vann's first novel Legend of a Suicide was the most shockingly powerful debut I have ever read. His follow-up, Caribou Island, was an equally tense read.

Both were based on violent events from his own family's past -- the first on his father's suicide when Vann was 13, and the second on the murder-suicide of his stepmother's parents.

Vann knows darkness and he knows how to write it. His third novel, Dirt, has an equally dark and dreadful event at its core, but this time Vann introduces humour into the mix, which somewhat neuters the impact.

While his previous novels were both set in the bleak, unforgiving landscape of Alaska, here he moves to the opposite, but no less harsh terrain of Sacramento.

Vann's protagonist Galen is 22 and lives with his mother in her childhood home in rural California. His grandmother is in a home suffering with dementia. When the family takes a trip to a cabin in the mountains, fissures in their relationship begin to show.

Vann is expert at writing about such family dynamics, the passive-aggressive behaviour, the explosive rows and outbursts, the festering grievances.

During the trip, Galen learns that his mother, Suzie-Q, is sitting on top of a fortune-sized inheritance, which she is refusing to share with her sister Helen and her daughter Jennifer, as well as Galen, who has been told the family can't afford for him to go to college.

Over the course of a few days, Vann expertly teases out a Greek tragedy's worth of issues, from lust and incest as the virgin Galen is powerless in the presence of his sexually experienced younger cousin, to the oedipal relationship between Galen and his mother, to the damaging effects of Galen's efforts to distance himself from human emotion through his New Age beliefs and practices.

What Vann does so well is to take recognisably ordinary characters and put them in critical situations, where tiny decisions or actions have life-altering outcomes. This is what gives his books their nightmarish quality -- the feeling that these events could happen to anyone.

Fans of Vann may find the added presence of humour makes Dirt less affecting than his previous novels, but it is no less gripping and no less horrifying.

Edel Coffey

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