An eleven-year-old boy goes up the mountain in a pickup truck with his father, his grandfather, and a family friend, for the first day of the hunting season. It is his moment to enter manhood, to bag his first buck, and he is possessed by the urge to kill. His father sees a poacher on their land, and shows the boy through the crosshairs of his loaded rifle. The boy pulls the trigger; the poacher dies. All the rest follows from this moment, and in a way leads to it.
As a writer, David Vann has two huge things going for him. He is a master of words, comparable to Faulkner, Hemingway, or the poet James Dickey in DELIVERANCE, another story of a wilderness trip gone horribly wrong. And he clearly writes out of some deep personal trauma that he cannot shake off. The only other book of his I have read, LEGEND OF A SUICIDE, is an avowed attempt to come to terms with his father's suicide. The same mixture of intense love and hatred is found here, and although the specific trauma is less clear, it is obvious that this is the work of a deeply wounded man. That is both Vann's strength and his liability.
I want to focus on only one aspect: Time. Had this story been written in the present, either in the voice of the boy, or that of an omniscient narrator, it would have had an impact rather like that of William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES; the perspective of time would not be an issue. But right from the first paragraph you see a huge contrast between the assured, sophisticated style of the present-day writer and the young boy years before who is the nominal first-person narrator. This contrast makes it impossible to confine the book solely to a weekend in 1978. Something must have happened in the intervening 35 years. Other than a certain facility with words, what has the boy-man learned in this time that makes it possible for him to look himself in the eye? I do not necessarily look for redemption, and total resolution may be impossible, but I do expect some growth in understanding and self-knowledge, some personal transformation that can at least begin to address the moral consequences of murder. Alas, I did not find them.
Consider three possible time-frames:
1, the immediate story of the next 48 hours in the woods;
2, the practical details of the next few weeks when they get back to town and either do or do not explain the deaths (for there will be more than one) and other consequences of the hunt; and
3, whatever personal disintegration or growth takes place over the next three decades.
Vann is superb on the 48-hour scale, painting in horrific detail the quarrels between the men, the difficulty of disposing of the body, and the boy's botched and bloody slaughter of his stag, the greatest possible contrast to his long-distance shooting of the poacher. But he entirely ignores the other two time-frames. Anyone who, like me, read long into the night anxious to find out what happens next will be sorely disappointed; the book just stops. The author does not think this matters, but I do. It is incredible that there would not have been some police investigation into at least some of the deaths and gunshot wounds they left in their wake. And even if nobody in the family was ever indicted, the very fact of having to deal with the law would force them to form some kind of story in their own minds, and be the first step towards whatever changes might take place in the following decades. Without it, and without clear evidence of acquired wisdom on the part of the older narrator, everything needs to be tied up on the mountain itself -- and morally at least, I don't think it was.
Instead of moving forward, Vann does the opposite, going back to the very beginning of time: to Cain the first murderer, Abraham and Isaac, the passion of Jesus, and an assortment of pagan myths into the bargain. Killing, he implies, is hard-wired into the human DNA; there is no escaping it. Virtually every chapter begins with a similar meditation, quickly becoming repetitious when it is not simply nihilistic or blasphemous: "The beast is what makes the man. We drink the blood of Christ so we can become animals again, tearing throats open and drinking blood, bathing in blood, devouring flesh, remembering who we are, reaching back and returning." Worse, he begins to cast the present-day characters in this archetypal mold. The grandfather, for instance, becomes the fierce God of the Old Testament and is made to do things quite at odds with the diabetic decrepitude of his physical condition. I suppose it is a magnificent tightrope act so long as you don't look down, but about halfway through the book, I suddenly saw it for what it was: melodramatic grand-guignol cloaked in spurious philosophy. Before long, I was actually bored, reading on only for a denouement that I wasn't even allowed.
I have no doubt that David Vann has major issues that he needs to work through. Bravo to him for writing about them. But that in itself is not enough. I find something self-indulgent in using words to wallow in shame, loathing, and degradation; to merely recreate the experience is not to learn from it. The ability to write does not make it right.