Book World: In ‘Dirt,’ by David Vann, a troubled son descends into madness

This searing depiction of a young man’s descent into insanity and violence will probably be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for most readers. David Vann, whose novel “Caribou Island” received widespread acclaim last year, here seeks to outdo himself with a nightmare story of a family haunted by the past and undone by toxic levels of hatred.

The protagonist of “Dirt” is an aimless 22-year-old named Galen, who is trapped on a derelict California farm. His only companions are his ethereal mother, his addled grandmother, his spiteful aunt Helen and her daughter, Jennifer, a nubile teenage vixen who torments him with sadistic sexual games. Keeping company with this quartet of harpies, alternately hapless and vicious, would drive anyone insane, except that Galen seems already to have beaten them there.

In search of higher meaning, Galen turns to a mishmash of New Age spirituality that would be comical were it not so creepy and nihilistic. Convinced that “only a world that had been staged could be so flimsy and so annoying,” he rejects his circumstances as an illusion, a “house made of memory,” and comes to the sinister conclusion that “other people were the problem.” As with all solipsists, his mind has become a prison, from which his only liberation is havoc, and the narrative arc of “Dirt” traces this psychic disintegration to its ineluctable, horrifying conclusion.

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. “Dirt” evokes the pre-modern sense of ancestral sins, the way we are irrevocably shaped by events before our time and beyond our control.

Less convincing is the high-strung prose, wherein Galen’s hands become “claws that could tear at the ceiling of the world and bring it down, the earth cresting beneath him, the furrows moon-painted.” These histrionics accurately reflect Galen’s tortured consciousness, but they also wear on the nerves of the reader, who may come to feel, by the end of the book, that he too has endured some punishing pagan ritual. “Can a broken mind remember when it was well?” Galen asks himself; the darkness within him supplies the tragic answer in this anguished tale.

”Dirt” by David Vann. (Harper)

bookworld@washpost.combookworld@washpost.com

Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.

DIRT

By David Vann

Harper. 258 pp. $25.99

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