If you haven’t heard of David Vann, it won’t be long. My agent sent me his debut, Legend of a Suicide, a year ago – a fabulously original collection of linked narratives that announced his talent (Vann's, not my agent's, though his talents are legion). There have been two novels since – Dirt and Caribou Island – but it’s his third dalliance with the longer form that I caught up with over the last couple of days. Morally challenging – of its characters and readers – Goat Mountain is narrated by an eleven-year-old boy (perhaps from the veiled vantage of adulthood) with astonishing linguistic richness and lyricism, the often-staccato prose also taut and muscular, likely evoking comparisons with Cormac McCarthy.
Paused for a moment, peered curiously around, eyes blinking, some kind of bird too fat to fly. Same thoughts as any bird, thoughts of nothing, no mind. Icy soul of anything made too long ago, bird or reptile or rook.
Opening with a seemingly inexplicable and devastating moment of violence, the book lays bare three generations of a hunting family – grandfather, father and son – as they try (and fail) to cope with the contrails of this murderous act, their subsequent descent into depravity horribly compelling, as already frail familial binds are stretched and finally severed.
There’s a bleakness laced throughout the narrative, but one tempered by the opulent and visceral imagery, by the lyrical evocation of landscape, the scrub- and burr-laden terrain of northern California, a keenly felt place that acts as both allegory and texture as events play out. And despite this vast ranch beneath its immense skies, we soon become claustrophobic, agitated even, particularly in the build up to one shocking rites-of-passage set piece. There’s a devastatingly unflinching middle section (especially for someone with strong anti-hunt sensibilities, of which I am one), but none of it is gratuitous, forced as we are to reflect on our own potential for savagery and unhinging, given the right (or wrong) circumstances.
Above all this is a book that asks difficult questions – about the nature of humans, the origins of violence and our capacity to both survive and resist it, to repeat it. It meditates unapologetically on culpability, on what age we become responsible for our actions, on sins that are biblical in origin.
None of this is to say that the book lacks pace and great tension, or is ever burdened by the heft of its own ideas. It isn’t. Just allow yourself some small space to recover after reaching the shattering denouement.Noah lived nine hundred and thirty years. But we are more ephemeral, risen and walking, made of dust but filled with thirst. Dust that will not rest. And this is god’s will, but his cruelty was to make the dust think, so that it would know its thirst as it walked.
This bullet would travel endlessly inside him and never find a target. It would travel for thousands of years and hit nothing because it would have a shadow somewhere immovable. Those thousands of years become less than an instant and the bullet vanished and winking into being and gone.
I sense Vann will always write ‘important’ books, or rather his work will achieve that distinction and more with the unfurling of time.
Goat Mountain is published by William Heinemann, £16.99