David Vann knows the dark interior of family tragedies — his own life is fraught with them — and he brings both witness and intense examination to stories of human savagery. His work speaks with an understanding of the unconscionable. “Goat Mountain,” his third Sophoclean novel, is muscular, existential, barbaric and dense with allegory. This is his thesis on killing, a world devoid of women and left to hunters who exult in nothing but taking life. Though his style and tone are heavily influenced by Cormac McCarthy — down to the removal of quotation marks — the precedent Vann is dealing with most directly this time is the Bible.
It is 1978. An 11-year-old boy, the narrator, accompanies his grandfather, father and an old family friend named Tom to their 640-acre retreat for the annual buck hunt. They arrive to discover a poacher on their land, and the boy is offered a look at the distant trespasser through his father’s rifle scope.
“I tightened slowly on the trigger. There was no thought. I’m sure of that. There was only my own nature, who I am, beyond understanding.”
The rest of the story is aftermath, the boy despised, the men trying to figure out how to handle the dead poacher, who hangs by hooks like a deer in their camp, the subject of as much debate as the body of Antigone’s brother.
Vann is in conversation with William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” James Dickey’s “Deliverance” and Ron Carlson’s “The Signal,” to name a few, but he is doing something on his own here. He writes in fragments sometimes, impressionistic descriptions linked by commas into a kind of prose poetry. This could do with some tightening in places, but these ordered observations are progressive, and he’s exploring both a landscape and an idea. Position is important, and Vann presents the view to us the way a hunter sees it, eyes always moving. This is terrain he knows, the hills of Northern California where his own grandfather hunted, the description rich and precise, his recurrent autobiography giving it a deeply realized sense of place. We leave Goat Mountain with the feeling we have been there ourselves.
The narrative serves as a philosophical treatise on homicidal instinct, the boy reminding us of our ancestral bond to murder. The terrain is made of sharp stone, dead grass and gritty soil, the dust all-consuming. The constancy of suffering and physical torment builds; the boy covered with boils; the characters all becoming more filthy, fatigued and thirsty as the book progresses.
To figure out how we would get out of this spiraling tragedy, we must predict what would reasonably happen next, but in these pages we’re always wrong. Vann is somehow able to state that there is no escape while keeping us looking for one. Logic is not in play. This is a test beyond the grasp of ordered society, the animal re-emergent, and moral law nothing more than an imposition.
Most of these chapters begin with a brief meditation on Cain and Abel leading to atavistic human violence. Though his theme is obvious and repetitive, Vann works as a preacher might, circling continually back to the heart of his message throughout a sermon. He expects us to be affected, even uncomfortable. He’s doing something fearless with allegory and character, building a soulless narrator to represent our true nature: primal, instinctual, unapologetic. This nameless, amoral boy does not seem remorseful, and even though it’s years later when he tells the story, he laments only that the joy of killing has diminished because of the inconvenience of the murder he himself committed.
Vann gives us a landscape, one that really exists, and transforms it into Eden laid waste, a hell on Earth. Religions have always used stories this way, and Vann, a former religious studies major, has clearly read his Bible as carefully as he’s read “Blood Meridian” and “The Road.” But the novel is not about faith or forgiveness or hope or redemption. It’s about surviving our past and the fear of the gods we know. While the father and Tom are weak, the grandfather is revealed to be a terrifying, violent presence:
“My grandfather did not come from god. . . . He came from something older, unthinking, unfeeling. He came from something as true as rock and stars, a place of no recognition, before names. And what he offered was annihilation.”
In the end, Vann is channeling Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” and we have to wonder about fair consequences for acts of inborn impulse. We want to alter the events in this story, allow for the possibility of happiness, but, as in life, we’re only given what happens.
Busch is the author of the memoir ”Dust to Dust.”
By David Vann
Harper. 239 pp. 25.99