‘Like somebody stapled the first half of A Confederacy of Dunces to the last half of American Psycho’ – Dirt by David Vann

David Vann delivers his take on the old spiritual journey story in his third novel, Dirt, where, in this version, the hero hardly even leaves his house.

Galen comes from a nut farm. A walnut farm to be exact. The twenty-two year-old’s days seldom differ, especially in the last four years when he’s had to defer going to college since his family, apparently, don’t have the money to send him. He spends his days reading Siddhartha. In the  afternoon he joins his mother on the lawn for tea and crustless cucumber sandwiches. At night, he runs naked through the orchard, stroking his erect penis as he goes. Galen spends a lot of time stroking his erect penis, especially after his teasing, seventeen year-old cousin, Jennifer, visits.

Galen is desperate to break this cycle of life, his samsara. He dreams of going to college, of travelling Europe for a year. But secretly he is obsessed with repetition, whether it’s masturbating, digging dirt, hammering nails or shouting the same phrase every time he passes the local pie chop.

He gets some relief from the routine when they take his senile grandmother on a short trip away from her retirement home. This being a David Vann novel, that trip means visiting a remote cabin in the woods. Jennifer goes too, along with her equally manipulative mother, who manages to get Galen’s mother to admit that there is enough inheritance money to comfortably send both Galen and Jennifer to college. The holiday ends quickly, acrimoniously, with grandma being dropped at the home again, and her two daughters vowing to never speak to each other for the rest of their lives. On their arrival home, Galen’s mother has a surprise for her son, promising to change his life forever.

The story changes too at this point, diverting from the witty, sexually explicit description of a young man’s life with his mother. It becomes a dark battle of wits as Galen discovers how determined he is to achieve transcendence. Dirt reads like somebody stapled the first half of A Confederacy of Dunces to the last half of American Psycho. And that is, in no way, a bad thing. Vann makes it work. Every plot twist is a genuine surprise and, in some cases, even a shock. That big shift midway even has a purpose, showing that change is never easy, as Galen himself realises at one point:

“Galen liked labor. He liked pulling dirt away from this wall, clearing and smoothing, and he wished that when he’d finished he could start over and find the dirt newly piled where he had begun. What was difficult, always, was the transition, moving on to the next thing and settling in.”

Vann’s characters tend to live in their own worlds, remote from the rest of society. And he doesn’t send Galen on any grand metaphorical trip into the masses. Instead he forces his hero to discover his personal boundaries and overcome his own obstacles. But this is no new age guide to defeating your demons. Vann is too subtle for that. He describes life at its worst, and shows how it shouldn’t be.

Any Cop?: Dirt is as witty as Groundhog Day and as deep as The Alchemist. It is a tale of two halves. The first is a leisurely jaunt up the garden path that suddenly descends into a dark, disturbing place. It’s funny, frightening, naughty and clever. A good road for any novel to take.

Jim Dempsey

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