Dirt

David Vann

Dirt

The year is 1985 and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house with a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento, California. He doesn't know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on old family money - an inheritance that his Aunt Helen and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their hands on.

A bulimic vegetarian who considers himself an old soul, Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath toward transcendence. He yearns for transformation: to free himself from the corporeal, to be as weightless as air, to walk on water. But he's powerless to stop the manic binges that overtake him, leading him to gorge on meat and other forbidden desires, including sex. A prisoner of his body, he is obsessed with thoughts of the boldly flirtatious Jennifer, and dreams of shedding himself of the clinging mother whose fears and needs also weigh him down.

When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain the transcendence he craves. 3.4 out of 5 based on 12 reviews

Dirt

Omniscore:

Classification Fiction
Genre General Fiction
Format Hardcover
Pages 272
RRP
Date of Publication June 2012
ISBN 978-0434021963
Publisher William Heinemann
 

The year is 1985 and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house with a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento, California. He doesn't know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on old family money - an inheritance that his Aunt Helen and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their hands on.

A bulimic vegetarian who considers himself an old soul, Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath toward transcendence. He yearns for transformation: to free himself from the corporeal, to be as weightless as air, to walk on water. But he's powerless to stop the manic binges that overtake him, leading him to gorge on meat and other forbidden desires, including sex. A prisoner of his body, he is obsessed with thoughts of the boldly flirtatious Jennifer, and dreams of shedding himself of the clinging mother whose fears and needs also weigh him down.

When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain the transcendence he craves.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

Caribou Island by David Vann

Reviews

The Observer

Julie Myerson

Vann's gift – his quest, almost – is a willingness to explore the unimaginable, the unthinkable, on the page. He is the real thing – a mature, risk-taking and fantastically adept fiction writer who dares go to the darkest places, explore their most appalling corners. I haven't read a novel as rough and shocking or, importantly, as wise and warm as this one in a long time. It's not safe and it doesn't seek our approval – and I've certainly no idea what Vann wants us to think or feel about it. But isn't that a plausible definition of truly great writing.

10/06/2012

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The Economist

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This is not a relaxing or consoling book. The reader feels some sympathy for Galen, whose suffering turns him into a bulimic and self-hating depressive. But he is also unremittingly selfish, deluded and abhorrent. He gives flesh to the notion that the victim eventually becomes the aggressor; that life taints and ruins, rather than redeems.

02/06/2012

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The Financial Times

Rich Cohen

The characters in Dirt read as archetypes, figures in a Beckett play: Galen, the boy who seeks escape; nursing-home-grandma, whose fading memory suggests the unbelievability of the past; Galen’s mother, Suzie-Q, who wants what all mothers want: to be loved, not bothered; aunt insane, who demands the money she knows is locked in a trust; Galen’s teen cousin, a sadist who uses the one thing she’s got to tease virgin Galen, thus representing the temptations of a fallen world. The resulting sex scenes are stunning, a dirty taboo pitched to comic perfection.

15/06/2012

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The Independent on Sunday

Doug Johnstone

We are inside Galen's head for all of Dirt, and it's a deeply unpleasant yet compelling place to be. Vann expertly builds the pressure in the first half of the novel, so that what starts off as Galen's apathetic ennui quickly transforms itself under duress into something much more dangerous and poisonous. After a seemingly inevitable flashpoint event, the story begins an inexorable and tragic descent to a truly mind-boggling conclusion.

24/06/2012

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The Daily Telegraph

Beth Jones

Galen is motivated by the need to escape from himself and “to wipe his mind free of memory”. Fighting amid the estate’s fig trees as if in his own distorted Garden of Eden, Galen believes himself to be, not a hygienically challenged underachiever, but a shamanic warrior and his story, although less engaging than Vann’s previous fictions, is, none the less, a well-written, unflinching exploration of the often terrifying chasm between who we want to be, and who we actually are.

28/06/2012

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The New Yorker

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Though set in the nineteen-eighties (with cassette tape and "Bonanza reruns" but no cell phones or e-mail), this California-gothic novel essentially takes place in the realm of myth.

21/05/2012

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The Evening Standard

Melanie McGrath

Vann’s undoubtedly impressive talent isn’t quite enough to save the first half of the novel from the bleak ennui it describes, and the reader is left with the sense that Vann’s real interest lies not so much in the build-up to the catastrophic event as in the deranged mental and physical violence which characterise the climax in all three of his novels. Events, one can only imagine, which have some connection with Vann’s own experience of family suicide and murder. Once we’re on the inevitable course to the denouement, the writing is all there. Vann really is a brilliant documentarian of folie de grandeur.

31/05/2012

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The Washington Post

Michael Lindgren

Vann has an extravagantly literary sensibility, and his novel is full of echoes: One thinks of the stately inevitability of classical tragedy, of Chekhov’s lost souls, of the hallucinatory quality of Faulkner’s rural fantasia, and of Stephen King’s depictions of an unraveling mind. Dirt evokes the pre-modern sense of ancestral sins, the way we are irrevocably shaped by events before our time and beyond our control. Less convincing is the high-strung prose, wherein Galen’s hands become “claws that could tear at the ceiling of the world and bring it down, the earth cresting beneath him, the furrows moon-painted.” These histrionics accurately reflect Galen’s tortured consciousness, but they also wear on the nerves of the reader.

30/05/2012

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The Literary Review

John Dugdale

As long as Dirt resembles a Tennessee Williams play, it works well enough – though it ’s never clear why the author felt that the warping of a young man’s mind in the Eighties by spiritual books was a story that demanded to be told. Vann expertly establishes the frictive family’s dynamics, and the first half ’s spiky, pretensionpuncturing dialogue is often as funny as Galen’s disconcerting encounters with physical reality and the teenage temptress. But once Jennifer, Helen and the grandmother drop out, dialogue disappears too, so that Dirt’s final act, resembling a bloated Edgar Allan Poe story, takes place largely inside Galen’s head.

01/07/2012

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The Guardian

Alfred Hickling

The difficulty for the reader is deciding whether to take Galen quite as seriously as he takes himself. His reading of Gibran convinces him that he is a prophet "living in a time that was preparing to recognise him". Yet the marathon masturbation sessions (Vann seems to give his protagonist a "boner" on practically every other page) and his sense of "the entire planet conspiring against him" suggest nothing more than an emotionally arrested teenager ... his karmic musings on samsara – the Buddhist concept of "continuous flow" – become an excuse for some extremely loose and self-indulgent writing.

22/06/2012

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Times Literary Supplement

Chris Cox

Vann is keen to show how beliefs, when pursued to extremes, can lead one away from humanity, which is the dark irony of Galen’s spiritual quest. This locks the novel into the logic of American gothic fiction: perversity will not be overcome by rationality; madness will prevail. But it also makes Dirt a shallower book than Vann’s previous works, and Galen a less deeply felt character than, say, Roy in Legend of a Suicide or Irene in Caribou Island. Vann appears so preoccupied with advancing thematic ideas about violence and fate that he has neglected to properly inhabit the minds of his characters, leaving them feeling superficial and hard to care about.

13/07/2012

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The Sunday Times

Robert Collins

The climax of this oedipal showdown, at first compelling for its lurid awfulness, becomes increasingly implausible asthe pages pile up. And withlittle emotional or psychological development of Galen or his mother, we’re left neither caring about them nor ever really believing in them.

17/06/2012

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