In David Vann’s searing novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy is eager to make his first kill at his family’s annual deer hunt. But all is not as it should be. His father discovers a poacher on the land, a 640-acre ranch in Northern California, and shows him to the boy through the scope of his rifle. With this simple gesture, tragedy erupts, shattering lives irrevocably.
Set over the course of one hot and hellish weekend, Goat Mountain is the story of a family struggling to contend with a terrible crime and its repercussions. David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel that explores our most primal urges and beliefs, the bonds of blood and religion that define and secure us, and the consequences of our actions – what we owe for what we’ve done.
Goat Mountain is based around a single act of violence before it becomes an extrapolation, an examination of the inherent violence within man. Vann frames it as a discussion that uses the phrasing of the Bible, an appreciation and respect for the natural violence of the world to examine the internal lives and sets atop startling turns of how three men and a boy react to said action. In places, it has a ponderous, almost clumsy turn of phrase but it suits the book and in context, it works really well.
Vann has always understood the spasmodic nature of violence, the archetypal power of the hunt and here, the limited focus serves the story well. With writing, you are always having things happen to move a story forward and externally, not a lot happens but using perception, allegory and parable, Vann throws a lot of ideas out there that all find their target. The writing has a creepy, intense, almost supernatural quality to it. He communicates florid and hallucinogenic scenes using really sparse language. The stoicism of the characters becomes meditative and what little is said, matters because it is so carefully deployed.
The book has the power of old obsessions revisited with new perspectives, it is a hymn, a ballad, a folk tale of a book but told with the understanding that comes from distance. What background there is, is communicated in a smattering of sentences, and yet that is enough to suggest both a troubled past and a horrible fate. David Vann shows that a few details are enough, and when he has the white heat of the narrative to play with, he shows the characters far more effectively than fat slabs of exposition.
It is both ugly and beautiful. He does not stint on any part of the hunting process, the reactions to the incident all feel entirely genuine and he speaks to a malevolent acceptance of horror that unnerves far more than any zombie apocalypse. Although it is not on the almost numbing scale of Blood Meridian in terms of capacity, by choosing a single action, he shows himself equal to McCarthy in execution. I finished the book feeling overwhelmed and numbed, relieved that it was over and sad for seeing that blank space beneath the final line.
I’ve seen films as intense, but never felt that I would return to them, but Goat Mountain is a tough place to forget, and I can see myself returning here again.