Review: Primeval and brutal loss of innocence

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American writer David Vann.
American writer David Vann.

David Vann's fourth novel is the story of one weekend in 1978 when three men and a boy go hunting in Northern California. The 11-year-old tells the tale from a point in his adult future, as he paces in his small apartment and remembers that weekend as the beginning of the end: "The dead take everything away."

The adult fully intrudes only twice, which is enough for us to know that his life continues warped and distrustful, and that every prediction made for him by his father, his grandfather and his father's best friend, Tom, the only character to be named, has come true. "You've ruined your life. You may live another 80 years, and every one of those years is destroyed by this."

The motherless narrator has already been hunting for two years on the annual expeditions to their 260ha in the mountains. They camp out, hunt deer and shoot at anything that moves. "We were always killing something." There are rules though, set down on the conduct and ritual of hunting and as atavistic as the worst excesses of the Bible.

The liver of the first buck must be eaten, the still-warm heart bitten into.

"No guidance is possible from the Bible," the narrator tells us. "Only confusion." A Sunday school pupil for as long as he can remember, his other education is presumably sparse.

Jesus is the only god-like figure to have walked among mankind, the only possible conduit to the spiritual world, and he fails dismally.

Little affection is shown the boy, even before he pulls the trigger and shoots a poacher on their land. He is tricked into drinking sulphurous water from a hot spring; he suffers horribly from poison oak rash and is offered no relief. There is a hint of parental love in the existence of waterwheels in the camp stream, built in previous summers by his father and grandfather to amuse him.

The shooting occurs early in the book, the rest of the narrative concerning itself with the after-effects - how each man deals with the murder and youthful executioner.

"What if we had never been told that killing a man was bad?" the boy wonders. And further on, there is "... no joy as complete and immediate as killing".

Goat Mountain gives us three in one weekend.

Vann's storytelling powerfully evokes and contrasts the wide-open landscape and the tightly claustrophobic world of the hunters. Skilfully and sparely, he takes us into the minds of the inadvertent but remorseless child killer, his hard, bewildered father, the myopic, honest Tom and the monstrous grandfather.

Action-packed and menacing, this new novel explores a subculture of men in an all-male world where brutality abounds and unexpected moments of tenderness surprise.

Goat Mountain by David Vann (Text Publishing $37)

- NZ Herald

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