Galen is an emotionally stunted, bulimic ("not eating was a way of punching through this existence") 22-year-old who lives as a sort of bizarre proxy husband to his clingy and smothering mother. Their house is filled with "all the old silver, real silver, an insanity right here in the kitchen" in the isolated shadowlands of a crumbling walnut farm in Sacramento.
Galen thinks he has pristine spiritual beliefs. He strives for the "continuous flow of Samsara" as he listens to tapes of music by new age multi-instrumentalist Kitaro. His reading matter varies from spiritual mumbo jumbo and new age texts The Prophet, Siddhartha, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Hustler magazine. Galen likes to bang on about his spiritual purity but there's an immense difference between the pure person he views himself as and the person he really is, which is evident by his nasty actions.
There's a heavy sadness which runs through Dirt but Vann has a bit of fun with Galen, a selfish, yet oddly earnest, character. When Galen and his precocious younger cousin Jennifer are having sex, he calls out "my crown chakra is totally open!"
It's impossible not to laugh even though it's a sad situation for both of them to be in - they're both just desperate to have some sort of closeness with anyone.
Vann neatly presents the harsh realities of noxious families and the emotional violence they seethe with. Favouritism, lies and money are the things that can tear families apart, and Galen's family is no exception. When they're not being passive-aggressive, they're aggressive-aggressive. As the family joylessly sit together to eat tuna casserole, Galen says, "Well, I guess this is who we are."
There's a terrific rinsed-out, sun-bleached atmosphere throughout Dirt. The unforgiving sun blazes down on the walnut farm as the book accelerates towards a haunting outcome.
Vann's two previous novels, Legend Of A Suicide and Caribou Island, didn't thrill me at all. But I feel that with Dirt he has quietly refined the insights into family dynamics and grief which he has explored in his earlier novels. In Dirt, the tangible insanity of families and how they relate to each other are tackled with a resonant, psychological heft. The oblique psychological and domestic horror of Dirt is reminiscent of Stephen King at his chilly best (not his airport novel worst) and Vann approaches his subject matter in a clear-eyed and sparse style.
Kiran Dass is an Auckland reviewer.