Dirt: A novel

July 26, 2012

The Globe and Mail

Dirt: A novel

When I first heard David Vann had a new novel coming out I was filled with excitement. His first book of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, was one of the freshest, most exhilarating pieces of writing I'd read in a long time. Five short pieces nestled around a novella told the story of a father's suicidal decline in the far north, with the lives of his young son, ex-wife, new wife and new wife's family circling around the madness. The writing was spare yet rich and vivid, and the narrative's advance toward doom was infused with such clarity, understanding and formal brilliance that the story took us into uncharted literary territory.

Dirt, Vann's third book of fiction, is a novel of epic family dysfunction. But be forewarned: David Sedaris this is not. Galen, a 22-year-old youth with an indeterminate mental illness, lives in 1985 Sacramento, Calif., in a hotbed of familial hatred, meanness, greed, damage and dishonesty, a family with no hope of healing or redemption.

To rise above the dreck inside and around him, Galen has internalized an easily distortable new-age brand of quasi-Buddhism sans the most crucial ingredient: compassion. His messianic pretensions expand his feelings of omnipotence, but he is a bird with truly heavy feet of clay.

Vann lodges a sick feeling in the reader's stomach early on. So, like Galen, we have frequent urges to purge the family's emotional poison tricked out as nutrition, a feeling that builds unrelentingly toward a violent climax. Flashes of black humour are but faint grace notes in this symphony of muck, too rare to have substantial impact.

Vann's use of dirt as a trope throughout the novel is brilliant: It functions as imagery, symbolism, plot device, mise en scène and character development, and precipitates some of the best writing.

“The meaning of dirt was this, perhaps. The shovel removing time. The eons it took to form dirt from rock. The water and air that had to work through millions or even billions of years to free it, and then its travel and settling and waiting, layer upon layer. His life now such a brief flash. Any attachment was absurdity. This was what the dirt taught. If he could remain focused on geologic time, human time could never reach him.”

This novel's literary roots infiltrate and take nourishment from Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Patrick Süskind and Lionel Shriver. But while those writers’ works gave us something wild and new, as did Legend of a Suicide, Dirt tends to wallow in itself. If I am going to follow a writer on a journey this repellent and arrive at a place so unrelentingly dark, I want at the very least to arrive at something new: a new voice, a new character, a new structure, a new insight. Also, one of the major plot points, propelled by Galen's mother, lacked credibility.

Is Dirt a metaphor for the violence and emptiness of our culture? Do we need more existentially nihilistic mirrors of this occasional madhouse we call human life? I don't know, but it seems to me our society is damaged enough, and we are all reeling in enough pain and confusion. I need a better reason than skillful writing, an elegant trope and scattered crumbs of humour to have my gaze held so forcefully toward the bottom of the ditch.

The blurb on the front cover reads: “A writer to read and reread: a man to watch carefully.” Agreed. You can't put this book down once you start it, but you may regret it lodging in your brain.

David Vann