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3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
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on 14 August 2017
This novel reminded me very much of Spider by Patrick McGrath, a slowly unfolding narrative of a boy’s relationship with his mother.

In Spider the story is told from the gradual recollections of a man recently released from an asylum. Here in Dirt we watch the relationship fester between 22 year old Galen and his mother in their secluded house, trapped by their circumstances with little social contact apart from an aunt a niece and ageing grandmother who only feature in the earlier chapters of the novel. Both are thinking of escape but it is the mother who has furtively thought of a way out which when revealed unleashes dramatic consequences of epic proportions.

This is not a novel for the faint hearted as it tackles the timeless themes of familial bonds with a huge sledge hammer albeit with lots of evocative prose attached.

“the water was unbelievably cold but he eased forward and went under……a different world underwater. He was a planet moving in a cold, weightless vacuum. Airless, impersonal with a different relation to light. A thin membrane all that was keeping him alive. He looked around at stone and sand, root and dark earth along the bank all of it expanded and luminous. The trout were all around him. If he could calm enough, he would feel their movement. Trout brothers he thought. I am here with you now.”

The contrasting characters of Galen and his mother, with her needs and his wants utterly mismatched made for a visceral unstoppably destructive relationship. Both want to escape but it becomes clear it is not their home they want to escape from but each other.

Vann creates a character in Galen who finds within nature an attachment and oneness he cannot achieve with human contact. His mother, in turn let down by everyone she has known finds the only solace to be found is within her own company.

With both characters lacking the ability to communicate their fears and desires with words, physical power becomes their voice and a battle emerges where there can be only one victor.
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VINE VOICEon 22 May 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Galen lives with his mother in the family home. He is trying to find transcendence through meditation so he can leave this earthly plain and free himself. His mother has controlled him for all of his life and manipulates him to stay at home, she has a rose-tinted view of her childhood. His aunt is the opposite and is trying to get hold of the family inheritance and views her growing up as painful. His cousin, whom he lusts after, teases him sexually and is just as manipulative and cynical as the others in his family. His grandmother has alzheimers and lives in a care home. A trip to the family cabin brings the realtionships to a head and sets Galen off on the path of true freedom.

This is a dark and unforgiving novel where none of the characters have any real redeeming qualities, the closest you have to a sympathetic character is Galen himself. All the characters can either be viewed as either products of their upbringing or they are naturally nasty and cynical. This leads into thoughts about nature vs. nurture which is why, I think, David Vann doesn't bring in any particular motives for their actions and thoughts.

The first part starts fairly light and humorous (mostly at the expense of New Age-ism) and slowly this turns darker and nastier as the novel progresses. David Vann is a master stylist and he handles the almost non-existent plot and unlikebale characters with skill - the way he makes the book readable is with the prose, which it is easy to get swept up in.

I have a feeling this is the type of novel that critics will like and the vast majority of readers unfamiliar with David Vann will dis-like - but for once in a modern novel it is not just style over substance. I have read Vann's previous novel Caribou Island so I had some idea of how the novel would be written.

Overall if you enjoy ultra-modern fiction or wish to try something from someone who is turning out to be a true master of the literary form then this is a must read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 December 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a vicious, brutal read full of hatred and violence - and, yet, at the same time, it's utterly compelling and intense. With Vann, all the gloves are off as he gets inside the shocking and sometimes nauseating head of 22-year old Galen, still a virgin and linked to his mother through a relationship of hating co-dependence.

This isn't a book for anyone who likes traditional storytelling or moral narrative: this is bleak, disturbing and as grubby as the title promises.

Vann is a writer who doesn't just take risks and push boundaries but throws the reader headlong into a chaos of emotional and narrative danger. This may well be one of the most powerful reads of the year, but it's also one to approach with caution - you have been warned!
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I found this book to be very dark and was not able to finish the book. As a book blogger and reviewer, I do not do this lightly, however I did not enjoy the author's writing style. Although the beginning of the book was light it was not long before the book took a dark turn of events including both abuse and incest.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's 1985 in Sacramento, California and 22-year-old Galen lives with his 46-year-old mother Suzie-Q in a remote house that she has spent her whole life living in. Galen, a bulemic vegetarian, seeks transcendence or the state of being free from the constraints of the material world, so he is not particularly interested in the money that his mother claims she has access to by way of an inheritance from her abusive father. Galen's grandmother is still alive though, albeit with a failing memory, and the only other characters are Suzie's sister Helen and her promiscuous 17-year-old daughter Jennifer. The story starts off in one direction - Helen's fury at not having access to the family riches - but then changes to focus almost exclusively on Galen's pursuit of transcendence. He is distracted by the sexual advances of his teenage cousin, and one or two of these incestuous experiences are described in intimate detail, yet the very long-drawn-out ending has little to do with that and very much to do with the irrelevance of everything physical and material.

After a few chapters this promises to become an entertaining black comedy, but it never really fulfills that impression. In many ways emotions are described too literally and even obviously. It would have been better to have left more to the reader's imagination, but the author consistently saves the reader the bother of wondering about details and tells us himself. So despite being a relatively short novel, there's a degree of excessive and unnecessarily heavy dialogue and narrative that spells out for the reader what might have been more entertaining to figure out for ourselves. On the other hand, this could be seen as simply the deliberately adopted style of the story-telling and some might welcome it. Personally I found it a bit OTT, and would have preferred more subtlety, more vagueness.

As it is, it's a slightly odd story, or at the very least a story about an odd family, and a family that's hard to sympathise with or feel any empathy towards. Almost all of the personality of the family is embodied by Galen, and despite the very intensive examinations of his identity it's somehow difficult to really know who or what he is. The most likely explanation is that he is the result of years of emotional abuse (mainly by his mother), but as this all happened in the past, we can only gloss over that as very little of that abuse appears in the narrative. The bottom line is that this is a cold-hearted family with little in the way of conventional bonding, and Galen's obsession with transcendence only serves to underline that isolation and sense of pointlessness.

I selected this novel in direct response to the positive reviews I had read here, but the reading experience has been a disappointment. It kept my attention throughout but I can't say that I truly enjoyed it.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Technically there is much to admire about this book.

'Dirt' is a well-written novel - however I find myself disliking the author's style and the first person narrator to a remarkable degree. The stylistic device of eschewing punctuation surrounding dialogue section is irksome (pretentious). The prose is terse, the characters almost uniformly unpleasant AND uninteresting.
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“Everything shrank in the glare. The roof of the shed maybe a foot or two lower, the boards thinner by half an inch. The fig tree more squat to the ground, not as tall as before. The furrows shallow. Galen didn’t know what that meant, that everything grew as the light faded and shrank again in the day”

Dirt is the second novel by American author, David Vann.
Recipe for family disintegration
1 young man, 22 years old (going on sixteen), the favoured grandchild, a virgin, trying unsuccessfully to transcend his baser instincts to exist on a higher plane (Galen)
1 single mother, product of a dysfunctional childhood, the favoured daughter, in control of the family trust fund and unwilling to let her son go (Suzie Q.)
1 grandmother, descending into dementia, relegated to a care facility
1 aunt, filled with anger and jealousy about her childhood and her violent father, resentful and determined to get her share of the trust for her daughter (Helen)
1 cousin, seventeen years old, promiscuous, flirtatious, very selfish (Jennifer)
1 trust fund, supposedly being reserved to pay for the care facility
1 secluded mountain cabin with very cramped accommodation.

Combine all the ingredients for a few days and allow to simmer. Wait for the inevitable interaction to occur, observe as things come to a head, then return all ingredients to their previous environments. To the young man and his mother, add one ill-considered threat and a shed with a rusty padlock.

Vann’s novels are never comfortable reads. In this one, he includes underage incestuous sex, described in some explicit and rather disturbing sex scenes, family secrets only hinted at, abusive relationships and mental illness. The result has all the mesmerising quality of a train wreck: readers may not want to see what happens, but neither can they look away.

His characters are people driven to extremes, and as such, not a bit likeable, although Galen does show some care for his grandma, who tells him: “Do you know what it’s like not to remember?.......It’s like being no one. You think you’re someone now, but it’s only because you can put your memories together. You put them together and you think that makes something. But take away the memories, or even scramble them out of order, and there’s nothing left”.

Vann’s descriptive prose is often truly evocative: “Everything was pale, washed-out. No depth. A two-dimensional world, a cardboard cutout. The hedge and the walnut trees in the same vertical plane though they were a hundred feet apart” and “Shadows everywhere, and the world could be seen in two ways, the light or the shadows. Shapes born and landed, or the dark spaces around them, hollows that fell back infinitely” and “Galen wanted to leave. He wanted to get away from this table. This table felt extremely dangerous. He understood now that what held his family together was violence. But he was locked here, glued in place, unable to move. He could only watch, and the only movement was his mother’s glass, and his grandmother’s glass and palm moving in its slow circles, and the wavering of the light” are examples.

Vann’s second novel is well-written and compelling: a dark and powerful read.
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VINE VOICEon 26 July 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Galen lives with his mother in a big, secluded family house somewhere in California. His mother is over protective, his grandmother (now in a home) senile, his aunt and cousin are money grabbing, and Galen is just plain odd. He spends his day reading quasi spiritual books, believing himself to be destined for greatness, while not really doing a lot asides from arguing with his family.

When the whole family travel up to their familial lodge old grievances come to a fore as the sisters try to get their hands on their mother's money and Galen tries to get his hands on his cousin.

Vann is a master stylist - clipped, precise prose, dark humour and a warped view of the world make the first two thirds of this book very good indeed. He causes himself some problems in the latter part of the novel though, the lack of plot and deeply unpleasant characters can be sustained for so long, but there needs to be some sort of satisfactory conclusion to it all, and it becomes apparent just over half way through where this is all heading and I found myself wanting to skip huge chunks of the internal exposition that make up the end of the book. The main problem is there is a very simple premise at the centre of the book, the name says it all, and he winds it out too far, until I found myself not caring and more importantly not laughing anymore. Which is a real shame, because the majority is very good and his writing is excellent.

I think there is probably an excellent novella contained in the pages, but it ends up as a bit of a novel that doesn't quite fulfil it's promise and by the end becomes really quite unpleasant.
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VINE VOICEon 21 September 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
David Vann's third book is another tale of family violence but this one's a good deal less surreal than Legend of a Suicide (on the strength of which I ordered Dirt). Not that it's easy reading, exactly. On a superficial level, Dirt is a straight-ahead family melodrama, albeit a deeply twisted one. The narrator, Galen, is an introspective twenty-something virgin with an eating disorder and an obsession with Buddhism, Kahlil Gibran and porn mags. He lives with his domineering mother in a dead-end Californian suburb. For some reason she has control of the family fortune and is hoarding it away from him and his cousin (who is coming to visit, alongside his aunt). Dirt revolves around a fantasy in which Galen seeks to dispose of the mother, set against the family's various vicious exchanges and Galen's own mental decline, which Vann renders utterly grippingly, in the same kind of stripped-down prose as in his earlier books. Things start off vaguely comic but get progressively darker until it all ends up pretty brutal. As in... incest and murder. When the action shifts to a log cabin, those familiar with Vann's earlier books will sense what's coming. As the title suggests, you'll want a wash afterwards.
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VINE VOICEon 4 May 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Galan is a disturbed young man, although he is 22 he behaves like a much younger man. Throughout the book we get to know him, along with his mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin. They are generally a pretty odd bunch of individuals who combine together to make a very uncomfortable family group.
It's not always necessary to like characters in a book but it is important to find some empathy towards someone but I couldn't find anything in this book to make me want to care about any of the people involved, except maybe the grandmother occasionally.
There is a feeling of The Wasp Factory about the way the story is told but it is nowhere near as good as that.
If you're not sure whether to read this book, I would recommend giving it a miss.
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