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David Vann
Caribou Island
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Harper / HarperCollins
USA Trade Paperback, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-87572-4
Publication Date: 01-18-2011
296 pages, $25.99
Date Reviewed: 02-11-2011

Index:  General Fiction

We're always immersed, even when we're not reading a book. Books simply offer us a chance to immerse in a different backdrop, as different people, and when we return to our lives, they may have interrupted us, just a bit. Sometimes you can even get some perspective.

You can read a book and come back to your life, and note how each decision leads to another seemingly inevitable decision. Watching characters struggle and scrabble across the surfaces of their lives in literature helps us get beneath the surfaces of our own lives. When those characters are faced with a harsh and powerful landscape, one that requires all their wiles to survive, we find ourselves pitted not just against nature, but our own nature.

David Vann's 'Caribou Island' (Harper / HarperCollins ; January 18, 2011 ; 978-0-061-87572-4 ; $25.99) takes us straight into the lives of Gary and Irene, a couple whose 30-year marriage is coming apart as they struggle to build a cabin on a remote Alaskan island. By many measures, they've done well; they still own a house, and they have two adult children who are relatively sane and both employed. But both feel unfulfilled, and the task that should be bringing them together, building that cabin, is tearing them apart. Trees, ice, dirt, rain, a lake, and two people who are feeling deeply disappointed — it's not a prescription for happiness. Except for readers.

Vann's prose is deceptively powerful. You slip right into his hypnotizing evocation of men, women and landscape; the characters and places become instantly more real than your own life. There's an economy to his work, a sparse, pared-down feel that makes 'Caribou Island' easy and pleasurable to read even when what is happening is neither. Vann's an expert at trimming words, at making the language flow so naturally, you cannot help but be caught up in his vision. 'Caribou Island' is language as a river, inevitable and inescapable once you immerse.

What makes the book so pleasurable is that once you're in, you'll meet an unforgettable cast of characters who are remarkably entertaining. Gary and Irene, the older, married couple who form the core of the narrative, are complicated and unreflective. They each experience glimpses into their own motivations, but as readers, we see everything with perfect clarity. Irene understands that Gary is a "champion at regret," but not her own capacity for self-deception. Vann's an expert at examining his characters' thoughts in a psychological context so clearly and compactly described that we as readers can see what they cannot. It makes reading their grim story pleasurable and powerful.

Vann's smart insights into character yield lots of very funny humor as well as pathos, and he offers readers a large cast of characters who are fun to watch as they all explore what they can do against the gorgeously-described Alaskan wilderness. His sense of antic tragedy is priceless. The daughter, Rhoda, is living with a dentist named Jim who finds himself attracted to a much younger woman named Monique. She's trouble. The son, Mark, is a genial pothead who lives with another genial pothead, Karen, and they are entertainingly oblivious to the darker undercurrents of unhappiness that surround them. Carl, who came to Alaska with Monique, is dumb enough to get in over his head, but smart enough to realize when it has happened. They're all varied, strikingly real, and come to life with Vann's quick, intelligent sentences.

Vann uses this mix of characters to complicate his "bad to worse" plot arc in a manner that is truly compelling. Pretty much everybody in the vicinity of 'Caribou Island' is going to find themselves on the fast track to disaster, but how they mix with one another changes the characters and effectively creates an enjoyable level of tension. And since none of the folks are particularly sharp, not all of them will realize their own shortcomings. If you can't quite figure out that you've failed, if you are a charlatan and don’t see yourself as one, then you can be happy; at least compared to those who know themselves all too well, who have set goals clear enough so that their failure is painfully apparent.

'Caribou Island' is an emotionally intense, darkly hilarious novel that uses powerful, precise and compelling prose to examine nature in every form. It is human nature and raw environment, seen with an unflinching eye for detail. This is a novel that hunts as well as haunts the reader. Vann lures us in with lush words, then uses them to corner his characters in front of a mirror. But readers can see themselves in that mirror too. Don't look away. When you're done turning pages in the book, you'll at least be able to see the pages of your life, and with effort, with luck, with love, perhaps change your own story.

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