At one place in Dirt, David Vann’s relentlessly unsettling story about the members of a revengeful family (mother and son, the mother’s sister and her daughter, and the children’s grandmother), Galen—the only male in the story—observes of his situation, “It’s not fair that I get one parent and she’s crazy.” Just before that, Galen eats some dirt. And still a few pages earlier, he’s locked his mother in a tool shed and started piling dirt upon it, trying to bury the shed. He’s taken off his clothes, “walked away into the orchard, lay down in the dirt and rolled in it, used his good hand to cover himself completely with dirt, rubbed it into his skin, into his hair, gave himself a coating against the sun. He would not wear clothing again. That was his decision. He would wear only dirt, because dirt was his meditation, and he needed to not ever forget about dirt.” Galen is one very angry young man, 22 years old, but he’s also very dirty and very confused. And the three together (anger, dirt, and confusion) take him into his mother’s room, which has always been sacrosanct, where he climbs into her bed, making certain that the filth on his own body rubs off on her sheets. At this stage in Vann’s novel it’s a little difficult to determine if Galen’s body is dirtier inside or outside. Ditto, his seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, who’s been leading him on, teasing him sexually for weeks, rubbing it in that he’s still a virgin, though he’s five years older than she. Yet when she finally lets him have intercourse with her, their sex is, again, one of the dirtier scenes that one is likely to encounter in recent American fiction.
Galen’s mother has recently placed her mother into an assisted-living home, claiming that the woman is senile, but there’s scant evidence of this. There are frequent visits to the old woman, involving both of her daughters and her grand children. Helen, Galen’s aunt, is particularly bitter because her sister controls their mother’s estate. Galen and his mother live in the family home. Helen and Jennifer live separately and constantly harp about money—legitimately, in fact, because Jennifer is about to graduate from high school and her mother wants some of her mother’s assumed estate to pay for that education. As is true in Galen’s situation, Jennifer’s father is nowhere in evidence; we learn that Galen’s own father fled as soon as he learned that he’d impregnated the boy’s mother.
Galen is also concerned about getting a university education. He’s wanted to begin those studies for the last five years, but his mother knows that if she lets him leave her, she’ll be all alone. So the two of them have morphed into an unhealthy relationship were Galen has become a surrogate husband for his mother. As the young man muses, “She had made him into a kind of husband, her own son.” And his mother has developed an elaborate ritual to pass the time—visits to his grandmother in the assisted-living facility, afternoon tea, and so on.
Galen himself has not survived these events without psychological damage. He’s bulimic, obsessed with popular mysticism (Carlos Castaneda and Siddhartha), running around naked outside and masturbating. Fortunately, the grandmother’s house is on a sizable acreage, with no close neighbors. The almost daily visits of his aunt and his cousin (referred to as “the mafia”) also pass the time but lead to bitter disputes between his mother and his aunt and increased sexual tensions because of Jennifer’s constant teasing.
One day he narrowly misses cutting off his foot while he’s cutting wood for his grandmother’s cabin where they have all absconded for a brief holiday. Galen muses, “Anything could happen at any time. That was the truth of the world. You could just lose your foot one day, and after that you’d be a guy missing a foot. You could never know what was coming next, and that was true for even the smallest things. You couldn’t know what thought you’d have next, or what someone would say in conversation, or what you might feel an hour from now, and this effect was always amplified by his mother. His conversations with her could go from zero to crazy in a few seconds. He didn’t know why that was true only with her. She could be calling him pumpkin one minute and threatening to throw him out on the street the next. And when he felt angry at her, it came from some terrible source, something you’d never know about, never suspect, and then suddenly he was drowning in it.”
That passage is central to the events of the second half of Dirt, when Galen’s mother suddenly turns against him and David Vann ratchets up the tension in an already claustrophobic narrative. You’ll be sweating as you turn the pages of the concluding events, not particularly pleased by the ordeal you have endured, but, nevertheless, in awe of Vann’s character implosions.
David Vann: Dirt
HarperCollins, 258 pp., $25.99
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.