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David Vann
Harper / HarperCollins
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-006-212103-5
Publication Date: 04-24-2012
260 Pages; $25.99
Date Reviewed: 04-24-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:   General Fiction  

Personal gravity trumps that of stars, galaxies — even universes. Give a mind enough rope and it will tether itself down into an abyss wherein it will pretend to self-discovery while indulging in self-importance. And once that mind has taken the plunge, the ego becomes a veritable black hole, a singularity. No feelings for the outside world, no perception of external reality will make it over that event horizon. The only ingredients required to create such a mental vacuum are puberty and bad philosophy. These are the makings of the implosion that drives 'Dirt,' David Vann's hilariously bleak comedy.

To be sure, 'Dirt' is humor of the slash-your-wrists-and-hope-to-die school. The worst aspects of human nature are garishly lathered in the make-up of amazing prose and asked to stagger for a horror that must surely edge into laughter, lest we lose our minds, or see ourselves in this funhouse mirror. 'Dirt' is chock-a-block with life so real you can't help but flinch. It's sickening, really. Laughter is the best, the only medicine. Flip-flop back and forth between humor and horror as you read 'Dirt' and you should make it out mostly unscathed.


Setting is key to Vann's novel, because the nature outside of us makes such a fine mirror for that within. 'Dirt' begins on a run-down walnut orchard just outside of Sacramento, California, in 1985. It's a filthy, decaying, weedy and reedy oasis in a sea of sterile suburban development. Galen, Vann's 22 year-old protagonist, is engaged in a co-dependent relationship with his mother. Homer, chronicler of the travels of Odysseus, would be proud. Money's tight, and there's a lot of unspoken tension to fill the awkward silences. "The mafia," that is, Galen's 17 year-old cousin Jennifer and his Aunt Helen, come to visit his mother ("Suzie Q") and Galen. There's a trip to chat with Grandmother, and a trip to a remote cabin. But wherever this family goes, they bring their own personal hells along for the ride.

All this may sound quite unappealing, but Vann is a brilliant prose stylist who makes reading this a page-turning, terrorizing and hysterical delight. In spite of its title, 'Dirt' goes down smooth and easy. Vann's stripped down, sinewy sentences are filled with urgency, and the short chapters are filled with drama. 'Dirt' is tense and really quite exciting, in a deeply disturbed manner.

Vann's characters are all too realistic. We totally believe that people like this exist. We just hope that we don't know them — or, that we are not them. Vann's psychological examinations of this unpleasant family are spot-on and couched in a sort of seriousness that only serves to emphasize the hilarity. It's possible to read this novel without twigging to the humor, and to enjoy the acute, intense characterizations, but the humor is there and Vann does have a lot of fun. He's not afraid to use repetition and riffing to go for the easy joke, and he is not afraid to have his characters stare into the mirror until their minds snap. But his smart prose makes all these brutal characters slide from poignant to disturbing to hilariously obtuse in the span of a couple of pages.

Be careful when you pick up 'Dirt.' Once you settle into a chair on the porch, you're not going to want to leave until Galen has gone through his whole catalogue of New Age obsessions, run every self-serving trope into the dirt he loves so much. Never has the novel of passive aggression been managed to this level of hideous, humorous perfection. Fiction this wonderfully cringe-worthy is rarely so well-written. You may well find yourself washing your hands afterwards — and avoiding the mirror. These are instincts that, in David Vann's world, will serve you well.

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