Book Review: Dirt by David Vann

Dirt by David VannRating: 4/5
Number of pages: 272
First published: 2012 (April 24th)
Genre: contemporary fiction
I got this book: for review from Harper as an e-galley

I was very excited to discover that a new book by David Vann was going to be out soon. I’ve read his Caribou Island as well as the main story in Sukkwan Island and enjoyed them very much.

This new book is equally well-written as the previous ones, but not for the faint-hearted. The story begins out just fine, maybe a little too sexually explicit for some people’s liking, but later in the book, well, what can I say? The book becomes rather shocking (in quite a different way) so I ended up liking the book but hating the story, if that makes sense.

Dirt: What it is about

Harper, the publishers, say this: “The year is 1985 and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house with a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento. He doesn’t know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on old family money—an inheritance that his Aunt Helen and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their hands on.

A bulimic vegetarian who considers himself an old soul, Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath toward transcendence, practicing meditation, firewalking, etheric surgery, and authentic movement. He yearns for transformation: to free himself from the corporeal, to be as weightless as air, to walk on water.  But he’s powerless to stop the manic binges that overtake him, leading him to gorge on meat and other forbidden desires, including sex. A prisoner of his body, he is obsessed with thoughts of the boldly flirtatious Jennifer, and dreams of shedding himself of the clinging mother whose fears and needs also weigh him down.

When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, near South Lake Tahoe, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain the transcendence he craves. ”

Dirt: What I thought

This was a very different book from Vann’s previous ones. On the other hand, there are quite a few correspondences: family relationships play a large role, isolated living, violence or cruelty is used when deemed necessary.

Galen is 22 years old and apparently waiting to go to college, but he needs money for that, which he doesn’t have. He and his mother live in poor circumstances although it seems that his grandmother may have some money. So, at 22, Galen doesn’t do a great deal with his life, except on a spiritual level. His mother pretends all is well and likes to keep the situation as it is. Galen loves and hates his mother and the life he’s leading, but is too passive to change anything.

I didn’t like Galen nor his mother. They were negative people who damaged each other’s lives as well as their own. The grandmother, with her memory loss, was the most sane person in the family. Helen, Galen’s aunt, and her daughter Jennifer were irritants who were in a constant fight with Galen’s Mum and Galen himself, while only really there for the money.

The time spend in the holiday home with the five of them was a recognisable and interesting family situation. After that, the story slid down into crazyness. Galen’s crazyness. This was (again) very well written but I wasn’t particularly interested in Galen’s thoughts. At least, not that many of them! The whole book was written from his perspective so the reader is in his mind constantly. So, the reason for me to keep reading was that I was hoping for a good ending (under the circumstances).

In all, this was an intriguing book with unpleasant characters. I was disgusted and appalled for quite a bit of the book. Still, it was a great reading experience, hence the 4 stars. Can I recommend it? Yes, to people that enjoy well-written books, like to read a confused person’s mind and can handle shocking events.

About Judith
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20 Responses to Book Review: Dirt by David Vann

  1. This was a bit crazy at the end, but I really enjoyed the story all the same. I like thode dark stories full of family dysfunction:)

    • Leeswammes says:

      Yes, disfunctional families are a grateful topic for fiction, Diane. I also liked the book, but I think you liked it more, reading your review.

  2. Great review. This one is sitting on my shelf…. I will be interested to see how I like it.

  3. bibliosue says:

    I still have Caribou Island to read, if I like that I may try Dirt, though it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. I’m glad you enjoyed it though.

  4. Weird how you can dislike the story and the characters too, and yet love the book. I have had a similar experience, but I forgot with which book.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Nadine, yes, it’s funny. But I wanted to read on and I enjoyed the experience while on the other hand I wasn’t, because the story was so awful (what happens, not how it’s written).

  5. winstonsdad says:

    I read his debut collection and have caribou isladn but held back from reading it as it seem to go over the same story as the first book did pleased this is different may try it as I did like the debut ,all the best stu

    • Leeswammes says:

      Stu, you’re right, the story collection and Caribou Island are very similar. In fact, in Caribou Island, some minor characters from Sukkwan Island are featured as the main characters but then years earlier. Dirt is a completely different story. The themes are similar but the setting and the actual story are very, very different.

  6. Mystica says:

    I’ve not read Caribou Island nor this one. Your post makes me want to do so.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Mystica, I would suggest Caribou Island rather than this one. Some of my appreciation for Dirt I think stemmed from me liking his other books so much. If Dirt was my first book by Vann, I’d probably be less likely to pick up his other books – just because of the way the story develops (once is enough!) – but in fact, the story is very different from the other books.

  7. Gnoe says:

    Thanks, I hadn’t heard of this book by David Vann yet!

  8. Hmm. I must admit the publisher’s description of Galen is pretty offputting. I don’t mind dark but I prefer some break from negativity.

  9. listenermark says:

    Found “Dirt” in the new section of my local library a couple of days ago. This book blew my hair back. It’s beautifully written, intellectually provocative, very funny, and creepy as hell. I look forward to reading his other work. As Leslie Jameson said in her SF Examiner review: “I will never forget the ending of this book, even if I wanted to.”

    • Leeswammes says:

      I agree, listenermark. The ending will be hard to forget. I have read a bit with a similar ending years ago and it still makes me shudder when I think of it!

  10. Pingback: TIERRA, de David Vann | Tot és una mentida

  11. Pingback: Book Review: A Mile Down by David Vann | Leeswammes' Blog

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