Dirt: book review

Dirt by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (May 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 272 pages. 978-0062121035.

To label Dirt eccentric would be an understatement. It’s Grey Gardens bizarre. It’s 1985. 22-year-old Galen lives with his mother in an unusual world filled with emotional dependency and varying types of abuse. Galen spends his days contemplating New Age philosophy and his taboo attraction to his 17-year-old cousin. His mother makes cucumber sandwiches for tea daily and they visit her mother [and Galen’s grandmother] in a nursing home. Suzie-Q, her daughter, just didn’t want to have her mother interrupt the idyllic existence she’s established with her adult son. Both suffer from varying degree of mental illness—Galen more prone to manic/angry episodes. Galen and Suzie-Q live off a trust fund established by Suzie-Q’s hard-working father but according to her it only allows for subsistence living—no college, no travel, no extravagances.

It really is that bad. It’s like being no one. You think you’re something now, but it’s only because you can put your memories together. You put them together and you think that makes something. But take away the memories, or even scramble them out of order, and there’s nothing left.

When Galen and Suzie-Q travel to the family cabin with Aunt Helen and her daughter [the object of Galen’s fantasies] and grandmother, everything crumbles. Helen’s after the money and always has been. Galen gets seduced by his cousin. Suzie-Q can no longer control her son or retain him in the bubble she’s had them living in for years. As Galen and his mother’s fighting escalates beyond reason or control, Vann delves into every psychoanalytical fantasy imaginable.

It explains everything. It explains the truth about men, the truth that they only care about themselves. And you’re no different.”

While this is a creepy, dark story, Vann writes with a smart, captivating style. Dirt becomes immediately engrossing. I admire Vann’s ability to write about unpleasant/ difficult characters and situations in such a compelling manner. Reflections on the permanence of dirt and explosive power of the sun propel the story to its final tragic denouement. Dirt is disturbing and unnerving but David Vann is a superb storyteller and keeps you flipping pages wondering what atrocities will be uttered and performed.

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