Fiction - hardcover; William Heinemann; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I first read David Vann in 2009, when Legend of a Suicide, a fictionalised account of his father's suicide told in a series of interlinked short stories, was released with much fanfare. Since then, he's carved a name for himself as a writer of dark tales, often set in the wilderness. Goat Mountain, his fourth book, is no exception.
With hindsight, reading it over the Christmas break may have not been the best idea I've ever had: it's a rather gruesome and macabre read, challenging in places and full of dark Biblical references.
"This is the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family," says the author in his acknowledgements at the end. "It also reaches back to my Cherokee ancestry, faced with the problem of what to do with Jesus."
Family hunting trip
The story covers one family's annual hunting trip in the wilds of Northern California that goes drastically wrong. It is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, eager to become a "man" by shooting his first buck. But within moments of arriving at their destination — the family's remote 640-acre property, which they share with two others — events take an unexpected and dramatic turn.
There are signs that poachers have been on the property and before long one is spotted about 200 yards away "enjoying a sunny day looking out over all our land and our bucks". To get a better look at him, the boy's father shows him the poacher through the sights of his .300 magnum rifle.
I traced an arm with the center of the crosshairs, moving up from elbow to shoulder. The poacher seemed to sense this, the most uncanny thing. He turned to his left and looked directly at me, into the scope, and he scooted his legs around until he was facing forward. He had seen us, seen something. Some colour from the hood or the truck or a reflection on a rifle scope. His hands lifting his binoculars from around his neck and looking straight at me with great dark eyes.
Without thinking about it, the boy pulls the trigger — and the rest of the book follows the aftermath of that one fatal action.
Four characters, four different reactions
There are four characters in Goat Mountain: the unnamed boy, his father, his father's best friend Tom, and his grandfather. All of them react to the shooting in different ways, ways that are shocking and, in one case, bordering on sociopathic. These reactions become more pronounced over the course of several days.
Instead of going to the authorities, the men retrieve the body and take it back to camp while they debate what to do with it. And, in the meantime, they continue to go about their extended hunting trip as if nothing has happened: they go on two stalks per day — one at dawn, one at dusk — and spend the time in between sleeping — and arguing — in camp.
The boy's cold, detached stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, which is filled with dark Biblical references, is horrific, but it is also blackly comic. Initially, the boy does not appear to fully accept the gravity of his crime — he feels nothing for the man he has killed, as if there's a big moral hole in his core. But as the weekend unfolds he begins to understand what it is to take a life.
My father standing at the edge of an outcrop of rock, looking down. You can imagine all that could happen in your life, he said. You imagine all that could happen to your son. You worry about him breaking a leg or not getting along in school, or not wanting to hunt, or maybe even what kind of man he'll turn out to be, if you ever look ahead that far. But you never see this. There's no way of seeing this, especially at eleven years old. It's just not something that happens.
Sorry, I said.
My father laughed, a bitter strange sound like strangling. Yeah, he finally said. You're sorry. Well that fixes it.
Disturbing and violent
There's no doubt that this is a deeply disturbing and violent book — there's one particular scene involving a wounded buck that is stomach-churning — but this is a powerful read that deals with important subjects, not least at what point should a child take responsibility for his actions. It ruminates on the sanctity of life, the sins of the father, the rules (or ethics) of hunting, human guilt and remorse, crime and punishment.
And because it plays out on a massive canvas — that of the wilderness, with its forest-clad mountains, rocky outcrops, quiet valleys, glades, springs and meadows — human actions take on a different significance. It's almost as if Vann's characters only find their true selves when pitted against Nature — though it doesn't necessarily bring the best out of them.
While Goat Mountain isn't strictly a crime novel — there's no neat resolution, no police investigation, none of the trappings of the genre — it should appeal to those who like dark suspenseful tales about moral culpability. I'm not sure "enjoy" is the right word to describe it, but it certainly had me turning the pages — and made me think about a lot of things afterwards.