Goat Mountain tells the brutal and devastating story of an eleven year old boy’s weekend hunting trip with his grandfather, father and father’s friend Tom. They go as they always do to the family’s ranch at Goat Mountain where the boy is eager to shoot his first buck and make the journey to manhood, a journey repeated for many generations on this land:
‘This was what we owned and where we belonged and where our history was kept, all who had come before and all that had happened, and all would be told again during this hunt, and for the first time my own story would be added if I could find a buck.’
This is a coming of age story as old as Goat Mountain itself and Vann’s descriptions of the Northern Californian landscape are beautiful and meticulously drawn: it’s possible to hear the twigs breaking, smell the pine, feel the heavy weight of the night sky pressing down.
But the weekend doesn’t work out as the family expect. Despite having taken extreme precautions to protect their land, his father spies a poacher sitting on a rock and the whole group is outraged. He hands his son his gun so he can better spy the man. This simple act results in a tragedy that leads the characters to question man’s most primal instincts and consider how we must pay for the consequences of our actions. This story is a meditation on the instinct to kill: Vann speaks from experience as his own family was mired in violence and tragedy.
Vann’s prose style is unusual: sentence structure is at times fragmentary, often poetic and verbs can find themselves redundant, but there is a joy in the way Vann uses sentence structure to mimic the action: long, paragraph length sentences to describe a fall; present continuous to demonstrate the unchanging nature of the landscape and their journey through it. Vann’s prose has real pace and momentum and drama so intense that this reader often gasped out loud at the horror presented.
Vann has written many books about his violent family and has said that this book completes his family material. Violence lies at the heart of Goat Mountain and our young narrator states quite clearly that ‘some part of me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end…. That there was no joy as complete and immediate as killing. Even the bare thought of it was better than anything else’. I suspect many readers will find parts of this book difficult to read so visceral are Vann’s descriptions of the darkness that lies within the human psyche, but the acts of violence are never gratuitous, and this reader certainly admired the bravery and strength of the writer who is able to address head on man’s most primal instincts.
Vann makes it very hard to like our unapologetic child narrator. By giving him thoughts such as ‘I understood that this was a man, but what I was thinking was that this was an excellent shot’, the potential to feel repulsion and disgust is strong and yet we are never allowed to forget that he is a child, a naive motherless child, growing up with a domineering, unpredictable , violent grandfather who wants to kill his grandson and burn him and a father often unwilling or unable to stand up to him. The question is how much is the violence in the boy a product of his family life and how much is inherent. The boy commits a terrible act and we are left questioning our own moral stance on killing. Is it right that it is permissible to hunt and kill animals, but not humans? Vann questions but he doesn’t answer; that is left to the reader.
There is a strong religious element to this book with many references to the killing of Abel by his brother, Cain: an act that stands as a metaphor for all human acts of violence; and also in the sermon like language that often permeates the story. In his acknowledgements at the end Vann says that this novel ‘reaches back to my Cherokee ancestry, faced with the problem of what to do with Jesus.’ Jesus doesn’t make much of an appearance here: instead we are faced with the God of the Old Testament, the God who is fearsome and all powerful and our narrator knows it and fears him. There is a sense that time hasn’t moved on from the first Eden and that for the boy, Goat Mountain may as well be Eden itself:
‘To me, this was the best part of every trip, the moment we found ourselves here again, the moment all the time between collapsed.’
The reader senses that it isn’t just the time between visits that has collapsed, but the time since the beginning of time itself.
Any Cop?: Absolutely without doubt yes. This is a triumph of a novel. Please read it.