First published in April of 2012 (US) and June 2012 (UK), US author David Vann’s novel ‘Dirt’ formed the writer’s fifth book to see publication.
For twenty-two-year-old Galen, life had plodded along as a very insular affair. Living with his mother in an isolated old house in the dusty outback of Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento in the Central Valley of California; Galen spends his time reading up on Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ along with immersing himself in other such spiritual literature and ‘mind-expanding’ practices.
It’s now 1985 and Galen is deferring his final year of school for the fifth consecutive year on the trot. Not that his mother minds or encourages him with his education in any way whatsoever. But he would like to go to college one day. But he has no idea where they’d get the money for him to do so. Since his mother, Suzie, kicked her very own mother out of the family house, the nursing home where Galen’s grandmother now lives has proven to be a heavy expense on the slowly dwindling money that sits with the family.
With no fatherly figure to look towards, Galen has grown up with just women in his painfully secluded life. And as he’s grown into a young man, Galen has found his desires for the feel of a woman mounting by the day. And so his seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, has become somewhat of a fixation for Galen. Something she knows all too well. So she plays with Galen’s eagerness for a sexual thrill. She toys with his constant lusting. His growing infatuation with her. And gradually entices him with her slender young body, only to crush him time and again.
But it all culminates to a point of no return when Galen and his mother go on their yearly trip to an old cabin of theirs, together with Galen’s grandmother, his Aunt Helen and his cousin Jennifer. A trip that ends abruptly after his aunt and mother fight over the family inheritance and Galen is caught with Jennifer. And from that point onwards, something shifts considerably within young Galen’s life. His endless search for a higher understanding of himself comes shattering down on him. His complete devotion to unlocking the key to life’s real existence becomes a task that seems forever out of his reach.
And when it all goes sour, then the events just keep on running away from Galen’s control. His mother is on a mission to bring Galen down. To wreck what he has for a life. He can’t understand her reasoning, her drive to hold him back over all this time and now to see his meagre excuse for a life destroyed completely. And so he reacts. He lets things happen and keeps on seeing them through. Under the blistering hot sun, amongst the trees of the family’s walnut orchard, Galen watches as events keep on descending into an abyss where there’s surely no turning back.
It’s tough to know who you really are. And even tougher to get a grip on where your place is in life. And for some, mere existence is a battle of wills that was, very probably, always destined to end in a pit of tragedy...
The tale begins by introducing the curious individual of Galen and what consists of his utterly dysfunctional family. Slowly but surely a picture of this broken family begins to form, with snippets of their lives together and their painful interaction with each other showing the reader that there is clearly a whole host of issues going on with each member of the family. Issues, that over the course of the tale, will be unveiled; the grubby secrets driving the storyline onwards to a volley of vicious feuding that just doesn’t know when to stop.
The stripped down prose that Vann has purposefully adopted for the tale works well with the third-person-perspective; describing the descending feud and head-spinning madness of the situation with a voyeuristic air that just works. Indeed, Vann has managed to paint a truly crushing picture of the day-to-day misery and the sloth-ish procrastination of Galen and his family.
Much of the first half of the tale is particularly witty, with Galen’s strange behaviour escalating to amusingly-outrageous new proportions. From an outside observer’s perspective, Galen’s actions would no doubt seem like those of a complete lunatic. Often resulting in extreme discomfort and as well as minor wounds – the self-damaging thought process behind these actions is more confused than anything else. However, Vann’s writing bravely ventures into the mind of this troubled young man, revealing the puzzling motivations behind these actions with some warped form of justifiable meaning. And in his strange lunacy that clings to some hint of rationalisation, the farcical comedy behind the surreal logic, such as with the likes of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’ (1961), can be witnessed in a wildly exaggerated fashion.
To say that the novel is quirky is like saying William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959) is a little odd. The whole thing about ‘Dirt’, the thing that really makes ‘Dirt’ what it is, is so undoubtedly the quirkiness of the characters (particularly Galen) and the storyline as a whole.
Along with all the pretty off-the-wall emotional jousting between family members, you also get seventeen-year-old Jennifer’s darn sexy flirting, along with some pulse-racing scenes to get the blood pumping. Vann’s certainly not shy with slinging in a hefty helping of smut, with Jennifer’s advances becoming more and more raunchy as the early chapters progress onwards. And these scenes never feel like they are there just to add a little adult spice to the tale. Far from it. Galen’s early explorations into sex, outside of him perusing copies of Hustler magazine, are the catalyst behind much of the snowballing drama. It’s like watching Galen grow from a mixed-up-and-confused-boy to an even more confused and disturbed young man. And good god is it compelling reading!
However, after around two-thirds of the novel has passed, with Galen’s plummeting sanity, comes a disappointing disconnection with the overall pace and tightness of the tale. Very possibly a purposeful and conscious decision by Vann, this breaking away from a fast-paced and energetically-written story, into something that’s much looser and meandering, does begin to feel like the tale is winding down rather than plummeting to a conclusion with a determined force behind it. Okay, so I admit that the concept behind this is very possibly an interesting one. It does, in its own way, help the reader to experience more of Galen’s psychological descent. But as a novel, as a tale to sit back and enjoy reading, this withering away of direction in the final third of the tale ultimately leaves the reader feeling less gripped by the tale as well as with Galen’s dwindling mental state.
Nevertheless, ‘Dirt’ is still a thoroughly entertaining read, with some truly inspired moments of chaotic but somehow logical madness. There’s nothing quite like seeing crazy behaviour from a point-of-view where it seems perfectly rational – back to ‘Catch-22’ (1961) again. And Vann works with the inherent comedy behind this as perfectly as he deals with the more overriding aspect of Galen’s decaying sanity. It’s a hell of a read.
The novel runs for a total of 258 pages.
© DLS Reviews