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Dirt: A Novel Hardcover – April 24, 2012
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“Searing. . . . Vann has an extravagantly literary sensibility, and his novel is full of echoes: One thinks of the stately inevitability of classical tragedy, of Chekhov’s lost souls, of the hallucinatory quality of Faulkner’s rural fantasia, and of Stephen King’s depictions of an unraveling mind.” (Washington Post Book World)
“There’s a lot of humor here, of a very dark vein. And Vann, a Guggenheim fellow, excels at sly truths” (Boston Globe)
“Brilliant narrative. . . . This is a novel of violence, destruction and ruin. There is no salvation. And yet Mr. Vann’s soaring writing carries it forward-a reminder of the beauty that can grace even the beastliest things.” (The Economist)
“His language is sharply funny, even as his characters enact a tragedy of Greek proportions.” (The New Yorker)
“The book is wonderfully twisted, but a sinister humor keeps things from getting too bleak. What begins as a literary family drama turns slowly into a heady horror story, part Stephen King and part Immanuel Kant.” (The Daily Beast)
“Brave and brilliant. . . . Dirt is showing us something unexpected, and unexpectedly stunning . . . Vann’s details here, as always, are pitch-perfect.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Haunting.” (Financial Times)
“Vann has a remarkable gift for capturing the harsh realities of a family held together by hate and violence. Riveting and impossible to put down.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Multi-award winner Vann writes undeniably powerful prose, whether he is blithely satirizing transcendental meditation, or meticulously detailing Galen’s descent into madness.” (Booklist)
“David Vann excels at writing about the darkest side of the human heart. . . . Vann fully exhibits the writer’s chops that served him well in his earlier works, and he again plumbs the darker parts of the human psyche. This novel is simultaneously disturbing and haunting.” (Denver Post)
About the Author
Published in twenty languages, David Vann's internationally bestselling books have won fifteen prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and have appeared on seventy-five Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He's written for the New York Times, Atlantic, Esquire, Outside, Sunset, Men's Journal, McSweeney's, and many other publications, and he has been a Guggenheim, Stegner, and NEA fellow.
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Set in 1985 just outside Sacramento, the cast is small: a grandmother, her two daughters, and her two grandchildren. Twenty-two-year-old grandson Galen is the central character--the "dirty" character--who is still living with his mother in his grandmother's house, the house in which his dead grandfather beat the grandmother--and often apparently. But this is the "elephant in the room," the taboo subject among many other taboo subjects in the novel. Physical violence is a way of life for these people.
The grandmother, having slipped into maybe it's a mild dementia, maybe not, has been placed by Galen's mother in a retirement home. There is a trust fund that we believe the grandmother controls. I say we believe because later in the novel... Well, I don't want to give that away.
The two sisters absolutely hate each other. With a passion. And, in turn, there is plenty of hate left over to spill onto the two children, Galen and his cousin, 17-year-old Jennifer who is the temptress in the novel.
Galen wants to travel, wants to go to college. But can't because someone--the mother? the grandmother--is withholding the funds.
And there is food involved: truly awful food. And there is a cabin. And off they go, picking up the grandmother along the way, to spend some "quality" time as a family in the cabin. And things happen! This "quality" time turns out to be anything but.
So off they go, back to where they started except now the reader is trapped with the mother and Galen alone back at the house that the grandmother owns but no longer is allowed to live in. And that is when everything gets really "dirty." In the words of Kurtz from "Heart of Darkness": "The horror! The horror!"
On page 202, this, what I would consider the existential theme: "This was the difficult thing about a physical existence. The body kept growing and shrinking, always outrageous, and there was no controlling it." Indeed the whole of life goes completely out of control!
I have never read a novel like this although I came close to it with Vann's "Caribou Island."
The last half was so riveting I simply could not put it down. And that may say something rather morbid about me! Or not!
What vaults Dirt to an entirely different level, though, is that the reader is left with unanswered questions of such deep significance to a full understanding of the plot, that the story is profoundly disturbing. Caribou Island could also be said to be disturbing, but the conclusion there was something that we read about in the local rags on a regular basis. This is a story that most people would have a hard time identifying with, and which is magnified by those unanswered questions.
When I finished the book last night (I almost couldn't put it down), I was left with a feeling of sadness and regret that the story had to end as it did, and pondering the answers to those unanswered questions, of which the most important seems to be: who might have been Galen's father?
There are a few moments of humor, but very edgy humor. Vann's writing is brilliant. Vann is brilliant. If his goal here was to draw in and unsettle the reader, he succeeded 100%. This book will stay with me for a very long time.