Dirt, by David Vann
I read David Vann’s first book, Legend of a Suicide fairly recently and some what enjoyed it. The writing was atmospheric and it had some fascinating twists. I did however get a little bored in places and due to heavy grey tones to some areas and on the advice of a friend I skipped his second novel Caribou Island. Dirt, his third is however quite different, for good reasons and some not so good reasons.
For his protagonist, David Vann has borrowed the interesting name of his high school best friend, Galen. Galen, the character in the book, is twenty-two years old and lives at home with his mother in the house in which she grew up in Sacramento, California. Galen resents his mother because she lives off the money that belonged to his grandmother, who is now in a home and won’t share any of it. He has a good relationship with her on one hand but on the other he finds her selfish and controlling as she will not provide the money required for him to go to college so that he will not leave home.
Galen’s aunt Helen and her seventeen year old daughter Jennifer also want to get their share of the cash. This makes for a very tense atmosphere in the relationships of the family. It seems that Galen’s mother is hiding her insecurities about her upbringing and her family behind her responsibility for the money and how it is held.
As he cannot go to college, rather than getting a job, Galen fills his days reading transcendental literature such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, meditating and not eating. He believes that he is an old soul, on his final journey on this earth and he is trying to find his path to enlightenment and freedom of the soul. David Vann deals with this aspect of Galen’s mental state very well, sometimes quite amusingly, sometimes at the expense of New Age ideals.
Galen’s other favourite pastime is fantasising about his cousin Jennifer. She knows this and encourages him resulting in some extremely graphic scenes. These scenes are very well written; I find it is a rare thing to handle sex scenes in literature well but David Vann does pull it off however, they did make me blush as he certainly doesn’t hold back!
All I have described so far makes up the first part of the story. Things do inevitably turn nasty and Galen is provoked into exploring the very limits in his quest for transcendence.
The book is well written and explores areas of human nature in an interesting way. Like the author’s previous novels, there are no likable characters here. There is bleakness everywhere you turn. Galen is the most understandable character in the novel, which considering his actions is strange but he does have conviction and is the only character, who does not try to bury his feelings or hide from their own reality.
By the end I wasn’t really sure what I thought. I found it to be a compelling read but I felt I hadn’t really gained any kind of satisfaction by the outcome. I’m not one for happy endings or even endings that need a firm conclusion but I do need to feel that there was a point to the story that I can relate to myself; I think that is important in order to form a relationship with a story and hence glean some enjoyment from it and this can include negative feelings too. Here though, nothing. I didn’t dislike it or disagree with it but I didn’t feel enlivened either. I would advise prospective readers to give it a try and see what you think.