Author, Book review, David Vann, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, William Heinemann

‘Goat Mountain’ by David Vann


Fiction – hardcover;  William Heinemann; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I first read David Vann in 2009, when Legend of a Suicide, a fictionalised account of his father’s suicide told in a series of interlinked short stories, was released with much fanfare. Since then, he’s carved a name for himself as a writer of dark tales, often set in the wilderness. Goat Mountain, his fourth book, is no exception.

With hindsight, reading it over the Christmas break may have not been the best idea I’ve ever had: it’s a rather gruesome and macabre read, challenging in places and full of dark Biblical references.

“This is the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family,” says the author in his acknowledgements at the end. “It also reaches back to my Cherokee ancestry, faced with the problem of what to do with Jesus.”

Family hunting trip

The story covers one family’s annual hunting trip in the wilds of Northern California that goes drastically wrong. It is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, eager to become a “man” by shooting his first buck. But within moments of arriving at their destination — the family’s remote 640-acre property, which they share with two others — events take an unexpected and dramatic turn.

There are signs that poachers have been on the property and before long one is spotted about 200 yards away “enjoying a sunny day looking out over all our land and our bucks”. To get a better look at him, the boy’s father shows him the poacher through the sights of his .300 magnum rifle.

I traced an arm with the center of the crosshairs, moving up from elbow to shoulder. The poacher seemed to sense this, the most uncanny thing. He turned to his left and looked directly at me, into the scope, and he scooted his legs around until he was facing forward. He had seen us, seen something. Some colour from the hood or the truck or a reflection on a rifle scope. His hands lifting his binoculars from around his neck and looking straight at me with great dark eyes.

Without thinking about it, the boy pulls the trigger — and the rest of the book follows the aftermath of that one fatal action.

Four characters, four different reactions

There are four characters in Goat Mountain: the unnamed boy, his father, his father’s best friend Tom, and his grandfather. All of them react to the shooting in different ways, ways that are shocking and, in one case, bordering on sociopathic. These reactions become more pronounced over the course of several days.

Instead of going to the authorities, the men retrieve the body and take it back to camp while they debate what to do with it. And, in the meantime, they continue to go about their extended hunting trip as if nothing has happened: they go on two stalks per day — one at dawn, one at dusk — and spend the time in between sleeping — and arguing — in camp.

The boy’s cold, detached stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, which is filled with dark Biblical references, is horrific, but it is also blackly comic. Initially, the boy does not appear to fully accept the gravity of his crime — he feels nothing for the man he has killed, as if there’s a big moral hole in his core. But as the weekend unfolds he begins to understand what it is to take a life.

My father standing at the edge of an outcrop of rock, looking down. You can imagine all that could happen in your life, he said. You imagine all that could happen to your son. You worry about him breaking a leg or not getting along in school, or not wanting to hunt, or maybe even what kind of man he’ll turn out to be, if you ever look ahead that far. But you never see this. There’s no way of seeing this, especially at eleven years old. It’s just not something that happens.
Sorry, I said.
My father laughed, a bitter strange sound like strangling. Yeah, he finally said. You’re sorry. Well that fixes it.

Disturbing and violent

There’s no doubt that this is a deeply disturbing and violent book — there’s one particular scene involving a wounded buck that is stomach-churning — but this is a powerful read that deals with important subjects, not least at what point should a child take responsibility for his actions. It ruminates on the sanctity of life, the sins of the father, the rules (or ethics) of hunting, human guilt and remorse, crime and punishment.

And because it plays out on a massive canvas — that of the wilderness, with its forest-clad mountains, rocky outcrops, quiet valleys, glades, springs and meadows — human actions take on a different significance. It’s almost as if Vann’s characters only find their true selves when pitted against Nature — though it doesn’t necessarily bring the best out of them.

While Goat Mountain isn’t strictly a crime novel — there’s no neat resolution, no police investigation, none of the trappings of the genre — it should appeal to those who like dark suspenseful tales about moral culpability. I’m not sure “enjoy” is the right word to describe it, but it certainly had me turning the pages — and made me think about a lot of things afterwards.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson, William Heinemann

‘Life in Seven Mistakes’ by Susan Johnson


Fiction – paperback; William Heinemann Australia; 346 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the author.

It seems somehow appropriate to review Susan Johnson’s new novel, Life in Seven Mistakes, on Christmas Eve given that the book is set at Christmas — although this is not how I planned it. I read this book in October and kept meaning to post my thoughts about it. As ever, life got in the way, and it’s only now, with the fairy lights twinkling in my living room and my traditional chocolate festive cake baking in the oven that I feel inclined to put my thoughts down on paper.

Christmas in the sun

The book opens on “a blistering December afternoon” on Australia’s Gold Coast. The Barton family, which is spread across the continent, gathers at the parental home — a penthouse in Surfers Paradise — for the Christmas holidays. But this is no carefree, happy family get-together. There are underlying tensions and complicated family relationships with which to contend. It takes the reader a little time to come to terms with the wide cast of characters, but it is forty-something Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Bob and Nancy Barton, whose eyes we largely experience the “celebrations” through.

Married three times, and with three children from three different fathers, Elizabeth has not lead a conventional life. She’s a ceramicist on the brink of international success — she has a show in New York coming up and one at the Australian Embassy in Washington — and yet her parents don’t take her career seriously, particularly her 70-something father who equates success with being rich.

‘You know what depresses me most?’ Elizabeth says. ‘How infantilised I become around them. Out there in the world I am an adult, with a career and a husband and a house. People buy my work and articles are written about it in art magazines. I’m about to have my first show at the best ceramics gallery in the world. I am a mother myself, for God’s sake, with three children who depend on me. Yet Dad only has to start bagging artists and I’m like a kid trying to get his approval by showing him my best finger painting. Or Mum says something in a certain tone of voice and I turn into a ten year old.’

If that’s not enough Elizabeth has to contend with a younger brother, Robbo, who is “loud and uncomplicated” and the apple of her mother’s eye.

He was Nancy’s joy, a boy who made her laugh and for years and years Elizabeth was jealous of him.

And then there’s the never-mentioned youngest sibling Nick, a long-term drug user — “the ghoul at the table, who always rises, covered in ash” — who is in a low-security “correctional centre”.

Throw in difficult spouses and an assortment of children, and it’s no wonder Elizabeth finds the strain of Christmas almost too much to bear. Heightening this tension is Bob and Nancy’s impending golden wedding anniversary, just four days after Christmas, upon which no one can agree how to celebrate appropriately.

Second narrative

Intertwined with this rather complicated, and at times funny, family drama is a second narrative that explores Bob and Nancy’s life together, from lovestruck teenagers in the 1950s to hard-bitten parents trying to maintain control over three teenage children.

It is this beautifully written element of the story that makes Bob and Nancy come alive in the eyes of the reader. You learn the source of Nancy’s current primness, her forthright opinions on rearing children and her staunch support for Bob in the face of what others view as his ongoing rudeness, and you gain an admiration for Bob — patronising, loud and overbearing as a retiree — who worked his way up the career ladder from labourer to managing director of a major company through sheer bloody hard work, all the while supporting his family.

Life in Seven Mistakes has been described as a black comedy, but I’m not sure that’s an apt description. While there are funny moments throughout the book, for the most part this is a richly layered family drama imbued with emotion. There’s plenty of thought-provoking material here to mull over too: How do you ever reconcile your childhood with your adult life? How do parents cope with children who don’t live up to expectation? At what point do you learn to accept responsibility for your own life and your own mistakes?

My only quibble with the book — and it’s a minor one — is Johnson’s tendency in places to be a little long-winded with the narrative and to over-explain things, but for the most part the prose style is effortless and authentically Australian. (Maybe it’s me, but whenever Bob spoke I heard his voice in a distinctly ocker accent, aka Australian acting legend Bill Hunter.)

But it’s the somewhat unexpected ending, which ties everything together nicely, that rounds out this lovely tragic-comedy of a novel and makes it one of my favourites reads of the year.