Dirt

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The year is 1985, and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house surrounded by a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento. He doesn't know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on the family's trust fund—old money that his aunt, Helen, and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their ...

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Dirt

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Overview

The year is 1985, and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house surrounded by a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento. He doesn't know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on the family's trust fund—old money that his aunt, Helen, and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their hands on.

Galen, a New Age believer who considers himself an old soul, yearns for transformation: to free himself from the corporeal, to be as weightless as air, to walk on water. But he's powerless to stop the manic binges that overtake him, leading him to fixate on forbidden desires. A prisoner of his body, he is obsessed with thoughts of the boldly flirtatious Jennifer and dreams of shedding himself of the clinging mother whose fears and needs weigh him down.

When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, near South Lake Tahoe, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain the transcendence he craves.

An exhilarating portrayal of a legacy of violence and madness, Dirt is an entirely feverish read.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Vann's celebrated 2008 collection, Legend of a Suicide, established him as a fearless navigator of dark themes. His new novel…cements that reputation…Vann writes in a sure-footed, mostly straightforward style, but with a penchant for verbless sentences…This syntax at first seems affected, but it comes to feel apt, giving the descriptions immediacy and reflecting the static, suffocating setting.
—Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
Publishers Weekly
There’s a kind of sadistic integrity to this story of putrefying family life and mental breakdown in 1980s Northern California, Vann’s follow-up to last year’s Caribou Island. Galen, a relentlessly unpleasant 22-year-old loser, lives at home with his mother on a family estate slowly being smothered by the encroaching suburbs. They spend identical days after days quietly hating each other and regularly visiting a dementia-afflicted grandmother; sometimes Galen’s aunt and 17-year-old cousin come along from sheer force of habit. His aunt shares his hatred for his mother’s false cheer (and resents her for being set to inherit all the family money), while his cousin cruelly amuses herself at Galen’s poorly hidden sexual interest in her. Galen’s adolescent spirituality and odd behaviors are grating, but fairly benign until the toxic stew of pentup anger and dysfunction threatens the family’s queasy equilibrium, pushing him to a breaking point. The last third or more of the book comprise his slowly worsening descent into madness (or evil). Vann’s evocation in readers of great annoyance followed by dawning horror at his main character is smartly disorienting, allowing him to plumb sickening depths by believable degrees. Agent: Kim Witherspoon and David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (Apr. 24)
Washington Post Book World
“Searing. . . . Vann has an extravagantly literary sensibility, and his novel is full of echoes: One thinks of the stately inevitability of classical tragedy, of Chekhov’s lost souls, of the hallucinatory quality of Faulkner’s rural fantasia, and of Stephen King’s depictions of an unraveling mind.”
Boston Globe
“There’s a lot of humor here, of a very dark vein. And Vann, a Guggenheim fellow, excels at sly truths”
The Economist
“Brilliant narrative. . . . This is a novel of violence, destruction and ruin. There is no salvation. And yet Mr. Vann’s soaring writing carries it forward-a reminder of the beauty that can grace even the beastliest things.”
The Daily Beast
“The book is wonderfully twisted, but a sinister humor keeps things from getting too bleak. What begins as a literary family drama turns slowly into a heady horror story, part Stephen King and part Immanuel Kant.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Brave and brilliant. . . . Dirt is showing us something unexpected, and unexpectedly stunning . . . Vann’s details here, as always, are pitch-perfect.”
Booklist
“Multi-award winner Vann writes undeniably powerful prose, whether he is blithely satirizing transcendental meditation, or meticulously detailing Galen’s descent into madness.”
Denver Post
“David Vann excels at writing about the darkest side of the human heart. . . . Vann fully exhibits the writer’s chops that served him well in his earlier works, and he again plumbs the darker parts of the human psyche. This novel is simultaneously disturbing and haunting.”
San Jose Mercury News
“Harrowing. . . . Vann, a professor at UC San Francisco, is often compared to Cormac McCarthy; he exerts a powerful grip here, as Galen learns how far he’s willing to go to get free.”
BookPage
“This experience is prolonged to the very last page, graceful paragraph, stunning word. Then it reverberates. Vann’s book is art, and not to be missed.”
The New Yorker
“His language is sharply funny, even as his characters enact a tragedy of Greek proportions.”
Financial Times
“Haunting.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Vann truly is brave. . . . there is no denying we emerge indelibly affected.”
Library Journal
With his second novel (after Caribou Island), internationally acclaimed writer Vann brings us into the troubled world of 22-year-old Galen. Galen lives with his mother, Suzie-Q, a broken woman who uses make-believe to hide family secrets. Their existence on the dying family walnut farm depends on the fortune of Galen's grandmother, who has been shuttled off to a nursing home. Fighting for a piece of the family wealth is Suzie-Q's sister Helen and her precocious 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Galen wants to break free of this dysfunctional family, but a hoped-for college education never happens. Suzie-Q controls the checkbook and tells everyone that the trust fund barely pays for the upkeep of the large house and grounds. Galen espouses all manner of New Age practices, hoping for ultimate enlightenment to escape his mother's suffocating attention. Instead, his spiritual awakening happens with his cousin Jennifer, who teases him with sexual games. When Suzie-Q witnesses one such game, she ends up threatening Galen—and Galen's deranged world comes to an end in a powerful and gruesome finale. VERDICT Vann has a remarkable gift for capturing the harsh realities of a family held together by hate and violence. Riveting and impossible to put down. [See Prepub Alert, 1/16/12.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Kirkus Reviews
After his widely acclaimed first novel, Vann touches on some of the same themes here: enlightenment through labor, the inevitability of violence, the contentious relationship between mother and son. Vann takes us to the early '80s in California's Central Valley. Galen, in his 20s, lives on a crumbling family estate. Grandma, rich but with Alzheimer's, has been dispatched to an old-folks home, leaving just Galen and his mother, Suzie-Q, to drink high tea under the fig tree. Emaciated from his attempts at earthly transcendence, Galen divides his time between reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, listening to the strains of Kitaro, and masturbating to porn. He dreams of college but is falsely told there isn't the money. His aunt and teenage cousin Jennifer visit for venom-filled dinners after which Jennifer tortures Galen with comically sadistic sex games. Galen lives in a curious limbo: In the hodgepodge of his esoteric understanding, life is an illusion, but the temptations of desire and anger seem real enough. After a disastrous family trip to the cabin (Aunt Helen tricks Grandma into giving her a few hundred grand, Suzie-Q spies on Galen and Jennifer having sex), Galen and his mother return home, and Vann's novel journeys to its fetid center. Galen's mother decides to call the police on Galen for "raping" his underage cousin, and so Galen locks her in the shed. For the ensuing hundred pages Galen does battle--with his mother, their past, the very notion of reality and who owns it. It is difficult for Suzie-Q to plead mercy when Galen insists she is simply an attachment preventing his enlightenment. His labor is his meditation: shoveling dirt around the edges of the shed, nailing boards to prevent her escape. Meanwhile, his mother, illusion or not, is dying. There is something of Beckett here in their cruel conversations that never get to the heart of the matter, that always seem to affirm Galen's slim hold on reality. At turns savage and comic, Vann's richly complex novel does what the best literature does: It makes demands on its readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062121035
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/24/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

David Vann is an internationally bestselling author whose work has been translated into nineteen languages. He is the winner of fifteen prizes, including France’s Prix Médicis étranger, Spain’s Premi Llibreter, the Grace Paley Prize, a California Book Award, the AWP Nonfiction Prize, and France’s Prix des lecteurs de L’Express. His books—Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt, A Mile Down, and Last Day on Earth—have appeared on seventy best books of the year lists in a dozen countries. A former Guggenheim fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, John L’Heureux fellow, and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, he is a professor at the University of Warwick in England. He has written for the Atlantic, Esquire, Outside, Men’s Journal, McSweeney’s, the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, and many others, and he has appeared in documentaries for the BBC, Nova, National Geographic, and CNN.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2012

    Worst book I have ever read

    I
    Can not believe I wasted my time finishing it. This book is about absolutely nothing; just keeps going on and on. I guess if you like Catcher In the Rye you may like it.

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  • Posted July 12, 2012

    Good read

    Although this book twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing, it ends in a shocking conclusion that makes the reader question his or her own family values and haunts you to the core. Deeply disturbing,but a page turner nevertheless. You will not be able to put it down!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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