Thursday, January 10, 2013

Like It or Not "Dirt" Sticks with You

I try to keep a running list of titles in order to have something to refer to when I am looking for a good read. I’m not very diligent about my list, so I tend to assume that anything I wrote down I added for good reason. I sent my list off to Santa this year, and the first novel I dove into Christmas morning was Dirt by David Vann. It surprised me, and now, having filed it safely away on my bookshelf, I am still wondering what I was thinking when I chose it.

Galen and his mother live somewhere outside Sacramento on their nearly defunct family walnut farm. His grandmother has dementia and has been sent to a nursing home though she is physically in perfect health. His aunt lives nearby with his hyper-sexual cousin, Jennifer, who relishes the chance to tantalize her cousin with glimpses of her body and half-realized physical encounters. The fractured family goes through a strained, daily ritual of afternoon tea, followed by a visit to grandma, followed by dinner, laced with barbs from his aunt, denial from his mother, and aggressive flirtation from Jennifer. The repetition is caustic and life on the farm, stagnant.

Galen feels trapped by his mother. He hasn’t gone to college because she says there is no money, and the two live off the wages for an ostensible gardener and maid. Galen hunkers down with his copy of Sidhartha on the porch, and while the summer heat creeps up to encase him, the reader’s initial instinct is pity. Poor bright boy, seeking enlightenment, suffocated by his mother and the golden past she wears like armor against the present. It is not long before Galen’s self-absorption and scuttled meditations reveal there is more at stake. The four women and Galen spend a weekend together in a cabin in the woods and the semi-privacy supplies the catalyst for Galen’s epic destruction.

The dirt of the title coats the subject literally and figuratively throughout the novel. In Galen’s attempts to reject the material world, to throw off the shackles he believes bind him, he plunges into the extremes of nature at his body’s expense. Every time Galen took a shower I drew a breath of relief, as if he were staving off some awful disintegration, and a real sense of dread built when he stepped out of doors once again.

Vann has written a disturbing novel about family, modernity, money, delusion, and self-serving personal exploration. Galen fancies himself to be spiritually beyond the people he is surrounded by, entirely failing to recognize the humility of his idol, Sidhartha. The family he is given is hardly a picnic, but Galen makes no effort to understand the distress of their relationships. Had he tried to unravel the tensions that surround him, rather than trying to cut directly through them, Galen might have understood the people in his life as more than obstacles to, or as pawn-like ushers toward, his deliverance.

It’s an accomplishment to evoke such visceral feelings of distaste from your readers while still compelling them to continue on with the story. I am not sure I am pleased to have met Galen, but he certainly won’t be forgotten.

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