cover image Dirt


David Vann. Harper, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-212103-5

There’s a kind of sadistic integrity to this story of putrefying family life and mental breakdown in 1980s Northern California, Vann’s follow-up to last year’s Caribou Island. Galen, a relentlessly unpleasant 22-year-old loser, lives at home with his mother on a family estate slowly being smothered by the encroaching suburbs. They spend identical days after days quietly hating each other and regularly visiting a dementia-afflicted grandmother; sometimes Galen’s aunt and 17-year-old cousin come along from sheer force of habit. His aunt shares his hatred for his mother’s false cheer (and resents her for being set to inherit all the family money), while his cousin cruelly amuses herself at Galen’s poorly hidden sexual interest in her. Galen’s adolescent spirituality and odd behaviors are grating, but fairly benign until the toxic stew of pentup anger and dysfunction threatens the family’s queasy equilibrium, pushing him to a breaking point. The last third or more of the book comprise his slowly worsening descent into madness (or evil). Vann’s evocation in readers of great annoyance followed by dawning horror at his main character is smartly disorienting, allowing him to plumb sickening depths by believable degrees. Agent: Kim Witherspoon and David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (Apr. 24)