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

‘Goat Mountain’ by David Vann

Goat-mountain

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.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Tivington Nott’ by Alex Miller

Tivington-Nott

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 180 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It somehow seems appropriate to post this review on the day of the Grand National, a horse race over jumps that has its roots in both hunting and steeplechasing (in which farmers would race their horses from one church steeple to another, jumping over ditches, hedges and whatever else happened to get in the way as they did so). Whatever you think of the National, there’s no doubt that it demonstrates the superb athleticism of the horse. It also demonstrates the special relationship between horse and rider — how the two can work as one to achieve great feats of courage and stamina.

That’s one of the central themes of Alex Miller‘s debut novel, The Tivington Nott, which was first published in 1989, but has just been made available to British readers for the first time thanks to a reprint by the publisher Allen & Unwin UK. It is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

An outsider’s view

The story is set in 1952 on a farm in Somerset, where the unnamed narrator is a teenage labourer from London struggling to fit in. The first part of the novel sets out to describe how he is at odds with everyone around him — he refuses to call his boss master as tradition dictates, gets bullied by local labourers and is viewed with disdain by the farmer’s wife (“Mrs Roly-Poly”) who believes “boys from London cannot be trusted”.

The only person with whom he should feel some affinity is another outsider, Major Fred Alsop, a retired Australian army officer trying too hard to be accepted by the locals who secretly despise him. The Major wears the attire of the landed gentry, talks too loudly and goes about as if he owns the place (“An Australian horseman in fancy dress prancing around on Exmoor. Out of a book, this bloke. A tourist!”). But even our narrator cannot fail to notice that the Major will never fit in —  he is tolerated because he has a rather impressive, and much sought-after, black stallion imported from Australia called Kabara.

It is Kabara that forms the bridging link between the first part of the story and the (far larger) second part, because our narrator ends up riding the stallion in the stag hunt, which is so evocatively described that you feel as if you are right there in the saddle with him.

Based on real people and events

Alex Miller makes no secret that this book is largely autobiographical — he, too, was a farm labourer in West Somerset when he was 15, before he emigrated to Australia alone when he was 17 . His “author’s note” at the front of my edition claims that all the characters are based on real people and that he even used some of their real names.

This probably explains why the novel feels so authentic and “animated”. You get such a sense of the claustrophobic closed social system in which he finds himself that it’s hard not to share his loneliness and alienation. And it’s easy to understand why he so identifies with Kabara, a gutsy stallion who defies the odds to compete with other horses more used to challenging West Country terrain than him, and the “Tivington nott”, a local stag that has no antlers rumoured to live in the area.

What I loved most about the book was the sense of adventure and excitement it conveys as the narrator rides second horse to the stag hunt. Every little moment of the chase is recorded — the uphill battles, the treacherous descents, the death-defying jumps — so that most of the time your heart is in your throat willing him to stay on the horse and keep in sight of the hounds. And all the time Miller is conscious of conveying the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

In front of me the wide silent ride winds deep into the dark green and dun shadows of the ancient woods. I peer down this track, shaded and thick on either side with bracken and underbrush. A bird is calling repeatedly in there; a sharp short urgent sound, again and again. Then it stops and everything is silent and still around me. Those great dogs are in there too, somewhere. They are intently unravelling the labyrinth of animal scents, some of them perhaps staying true to the peculiar signature of the Haddon stag, approaching his secret lair, working the complex line closer to him by the minute.

Threaded into this thrilling narrative are little insights into various characters — the houndsman Grabbe, the whipper-in Matthew Tolland, the red-coated huntsman Perry, the chairman of the Hunt Damages Committee Harry Cheyne and the master of the hunt, Mrs Grant, among others — so that a well rounded picture of this close-knit community, where class and social standing is everything, is evoked.

But this is not just a fast-paced spinetingling read: the conclusion is a deeply moving one as our narrator realises Kabara has found his place, but he still hasn’t quite found his…

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

‘Legend of a Suicide’ by David Vann

LegendofaSuicide

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide is a deceptive book. I started it, thinking it was a novel, and was mid-way through it before I clocked that it was no such thing. This is actually a series of stories, albeit about the same character, Roy Venn, dealing with the suicide of his father, Jim.

The first, Ichthyology, is told through the eyes of a young Roy, who is obsessed with his aquarium and sneaks out of the house in his pajamas whenever he hears his parent’s fighting. We learn that his father, a dentist, is a troubled man beset by marital woes. The ending, when it comes, via a .44 Magnum handgun on the deck of a fishing boat, feels like a relief.

The next story, Rhoda, is a black comedy about Jim’s second wife, “who had dark, dark hair, pale skin, and a dropped eyelid that, on closer view, made her terribly beautiful”. At only 13 pages long, it’s enough for the reader to glean that Jim’s unable to relate to women very well: within days of their marriage the pair are rowing and Jim’s telling Roy, “She wasn’t like this before. This isn’t the woman I married.” We also discover Jim’s penchant for guns.

A Legend of Good Men is set after Jim’s death and focuses on Jim’s first wife (Roy’s mother) and the succession of men that she dates. Or, as Roy so aptly puts it:

The men she dated were a lot like the circuses that passed through our town. They’d move in quickly and unpack everything they owned, as if they had come to stay. They’d tempt us with brightly colored objects — flowers, balloons, remote controlled race cars — perform tricks with their beards and hands, call us funny names like snip, my little squash plant, ding-dong, and apple pie, and yell their stories at us day and night. Then they’d vanish, and we’d find no sign left, no mention  even, as if we’d simply imagined them.

By now, we’ve built up a pretty good picture of Jim, his first wife, his second wife and his son, and how his death has altered their lives forever. And then David Vann pulls a brilliant literary trick out of the magic hat and presents us with a two-part novella, Sukkwan Island, that is some of the finest story-telling you’re ever likely to come across in modern fiction. I loved this section of the book, which is told in the third-person (as opposed to the first-person in the preceding stories), and read it with a mixture of awe, fascination and fear.

Again, this story looks at Jim’s suicide from another angle: what if a bereaved son could extract his revenge on his dad before such a cowardly act is even carried out? I won’t spoil the plot, but if you think Stephen King meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you’ll get a fair idea of the horror and bleakness of what unfolds. Mind you, it’s quite hilarious in places, if you don’t mind laughing at gruesome things. Basically, Jim decides to spend a year living on a remote Alaskan island, taking his now 15-year-old son with him. He is woefully ill-equipped, both physically and mentally, for the task and when winter sets in things begin going a little awry, with devastating consequences…

The fifth and final story, Ketchikan, is told through Roy’s eyes as an adult revisiting the town his father once lived in, hoping to confront the mistress that destroyed his parent’s first marriage. But instead of putting ghosts to rest, Roy realises that perhaps there were very real reasons for what happened and that he’s failed to properly grasp them, let alone understand them. It feels like an emotional low-point, and the reader’s left wondering how much of the father’s patterns of behaviour will be carried on by the son.

Interestingly, David Vann has dedicated this book to his own father, James Edward Vann, who killed himself when David was a child. In his acknowledgments David thanks his family “because it was an uncomfortable topic I was writing about — my father’s suicide — and there’s exposure in these stories.” He adds: “They’re fictional but based on a lot that’s true.”