By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 5:21 PM
By David Vann
(Harper. 293 pp. $25.99)
Approach David Vann's first novel the way you would a fresh grave - with a mixture of fascination and fear. "Caribou Island" follows the author's story collection "Legend of a Suicide," inspired by his father's violent death. Clearly that tragedy still haunts Vann - how could it not? - but now he's written a novel that breaks out of the autobiographical boundaries of his own grief and exposes our friable ties to those we love.
Of course, there's no shortage of dreary tales, but Vann isn't writing in that popular school of static despair. Despite the crushing sorrow of "Caribou Island," it progresses with tremendous momentum. Inspired by the experience of his stepmother's parents, this story of a family in southern Alaska comes to us in a series of vibrant moments as bracing, invigorating and finally as deadly as the icy water that surrounds these characters.
When the novel opens, unhappily married Irene and Gary are setting off on a Henry David Thoreau adventure, but they are light-years from the inspiration found at Walden Pond. Gary has always wanted to build and live in a small cabin on Caribou Island in Skilak Lake south of Anchorage, and now that his wife has finally retired from teaching, she's out of excuses. Except that she doesn't want to live in the howling wilderness in an unheated shack built by a man with "no plans, no experience, no permits."
What Gary thinks of as a search for authenticity, Irene sees as "an expression of despair . . . a sign that Gary hadn't found a way to fit into his real life." With a rising sense of panic, she senses that he plans to discard her - or work her to death. His tiny 16-by-12 cabin is a fitting expression of the cramped dimensions of their life together. And so, through the course of the novel, they haul and saw and hammer, ripping into each other with accusations and resentments stored up over 30 years, both of them baffled by the ruin of their marriage. That they love each other makes their irritation all the more painful as they labor on, often soaking wet, frequently in the dark, in subzero temperatures.
This story of a mismatched couple lost on the tundra of retirement would be almost too much to bear if it weren't warmed a bit by the antics of their adult children. They're doing a poor job of hammering out their own relationships on the mainland. The novel focuses particularly on 30-year-old Rhoda, who senses that something horrible is happening to her parents on Caribou Island. But she's distracted by her plans to marry a schmuck named Jim, who's preparing for their marriage with plans to bed as many people as possible. There are some genuinely funny scenes here involving this pathetic creep as he cheats on Rhoda with a woman half his age - fiancee and mistress showing up together for dinner, a game of Twister that leaves Jim lusting away even as he panics about the threat of exposure. It's another indication of Vann's daring and skill that he can integrate this sex comedy into such a tragic story in a way that stretches the novel's emotional range without shattering its poignancy.
Men don't come off well in these pages, a reflection, I'm tempted to speculate, on the author's experience with his own father, who shot himself while speaking to Vann's mother on the phone. "Caribou Island" presents a world of irritable, depressive, even stupid men who lament their limited options, poisoning everyone around them with bile.
Alaska, too, gets stripped of its romance, despite Vann's ability to portray the water and the wilderness in all their lush beauty. "No one stayed unless they were stuck," Rhoda muses bitterly, and that judgment gets repeated in a variety of convincing ways. We see Irene "slumping down in raingear, hiding, making herself as small as possible, fending off mosquitoes that somehow managed to fly despite the wind. Feeling chilled and alone. Not the expansive vision you'd be tempted to have, spreading your arms on some sunny day on an open slope of purple lupine, looking at mountains all around." The reality, as etched here by these jaundiced citizens of the 49th state, is one of economic stagnation, loneliness and grinding physical labor.
Vann, who was born in Alaska, handles conflicted feelings of love and resentment, and the raw, existential cries of ordinary people, extraordinarily well. And although he's a graceful writer, he never spins the kind of poetic prose that infects too many literary novels with distracting prettiness. But is the ending too much, too Gothic, too masochistic in its determination to make these hapless characters pay for surviving, for imagining that hope isn't a cheat? As the final pages rise into the piercing registry of Cormac McCarthy - or Euripides - some readers may spot Vann's thumb on the scale, making sure every drop of agony is paid. But just wait: For a few moments after this perfectly choreographed horror, it's impossible to say anything at all.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.