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Dirt by David Vann

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Synopsis:

Twenty-two-year-old Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath towards transcendence. He lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded house, surviving on old family money that his Aunt Helen and cousin Jennifer are determined to get their hands on. Galen doesn’t know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother is losing her memory. When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain what it is he craves.

This is an uncomfortable, intense book that is a slow, deliberate descent into insanity and horror, an examination of the cyclical nature of familial abuse and pain, the delusions and self deceptions that mark a small family. Galen, being the only male in the family serves as both a work in progress and an apogee for familial sins that are alluded to but never wholly defined.

For all of it’s discomfort, it is beautifully written, has a reality to it particularly in the covert accusations that simmer then explode into rancour and recrimination. Galen’s relationship with Jennifer has a deranged eroticism that captures the savage beauty of sexual dynamics, a tender fury that, in it’s consummation, serves as the engine of the third act, which is an unrelenting descent into utter horror.

Now, in lesser hands, this could have served as an exercise in literary masochism but Vann exercises just enough restraint to capture the dissonant beauty of it all. Galen’s adoption of new age principles, his dreams are mentioned and then used to reveal the fallacies and contradictions. We go into Galen’s hell, but Vann never lets us forget that the devil has feet of clay.

The last act, around 100 pages or so, is unremitting, staying with a stream of consciousness style that captures the mumbling, deceptive rationalisations of Galen and the things that he does. He finds a form of spiritual practice, but with each shovelful of dirt, he is simply digging himself into a point of no return.

For all of the ugliness, the sensuality and beauty is thrown into relief by the careful sentence structure, the way that Vann shows us how families can be perfect engines of horror and pain. The unresolved conflicts in this family lead to horrific conclusions and actions, but nothing here feels forced. Vann puts these people together, hints at what made them this way and then sits back, allows us to watch them tear one another apart. The title is metaphor but entirely appropriate and although this is my first book by David Vann, it will not be my last.

 

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