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Review of Dirt by David Vann

By Tim Chamberlain

In his return to fiction, David Vann delivers a dark,entertaining page-turner that is both compelling and disturbing.

Vann, author of Caribou Island, brings a slightly lighter touch to his new novel, Dirt. It starts out innocently enough–our protagonist, Galen, just seems like a wacky, New Age 22-year old. However, as Dirt progresses, it slowly starts turning towards darker territory, and it’s surprising just how dark it gets.

Galen lives at home with his mother in a situation she seems to have carefully orchestrated. She has driven all other family members away but Galen, and Galen has gotten sick of her. His mother (“Suzie-Q” as called by her mother and her sister) is locked in some sanitized version of the past. She won’t talk about past family problems that are elephants in the room, especially how Galen’s grandfather beat his grandmother. All of this weirdness and denial sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

The family’s current issues center around the money left by Galen’s grandfather to his grandmother. Galen’s mother seemed to always have been favored over Helen, and she was given control over the money when Grandma was put in a home. The resentment and jealousy over this money drives much of this novel.

Galen is a devout New Ager–he is constantly trying to “make the world slip” through meditation, singing with stones, attempting to walk on water, etc. His actions are largely inexplicable to the world at large, but it is interesting that Vann gives us Galen’s internal dialogue thus giving us at least Galen’s justification for his actions. It is through Galen’s thoughts that one sees that he is fairly misguided, but has no one to set him right. Unsurprisingly, Galen’s actions tend to isolate him from the rest of his family, and this seems to allow Galen to grow ever more detached from other people. Galen is so isolated and confused that he begins having delusions of grandeur, in his own way. For example, he thinks he is likely a prophet and compares himself to Jesus more than once.

Essentially this is a story of a confused young man, his awful family history, and what can happen to people with no one to guide them. It’s hard to tell whether Galen’s family made him a bit or if that was just who he was, but the undercurrent of crazy builds in Galen throughout Dirt.

Just as in his previous novel, Vann proves himself to be an adept, engrossing writer with a knack for telling the stories of broken families. Vann, who is quite forthcoming about the fact that he came from less-than-ideal circumstances, has a wonderful talent for taking outwardly normal people and exposing all of the strain, violence and insanity underneath. One often gets the feeling reading a David Vann book that the madness is in everyone, it is only a matter of what it takes to bring it out.

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