By David Vann
An eleven-year-old boy goes on the annual hunting trip with his father, grandfather and his father's best friend. He has gone with them as long as he can remember. They are going to their family's property on Goat Mountain in Northern California. This is the year the boy is supposed to become a man; he is supposed to get his own deer.
But that's not what happens. A death occurs and the rest of David Vann's Goat Mountain deals with ideas of justice and retribution, of punishment and the lack of salvation and forgiveness. It is a stark and violent novel that is difficult to read without the reader's heart aching and stomach feeling queasy. Goat Mountain also is a sincere attempt on the author's part to reconcile Old Testament, New Testament and how he sees the world based on his great admiration of his Cherokee grandfather.
The novel is brilliantly written. There are sentence fragments and complex sentences and plain, old regular sentences that all work together to cast a spell that made this world whole. I wrote out 15 pages of quotes in a chapbook because the writing is so beautiful, evoking not only what happens in this story but also its larger implications of humanity's notions of life and death, of dominance and freedom. For a novel that is less than 270 pages, it's a big book of ideas.
The narrator, the boy, is obviously excited about this rite of passage trip and looks forward to taking his place as a full-grown man amongst these other men. When they arrive at their property, they spot a poacher sunning himself on a ledge in the distance. The boy's father focuses his rifle on the trespasser, readies the rifle to fire a warning shot and hands the rifle to his son to take a look. The boy dispassionately fires and kills the stranger.
It is clear he feels he has done the right thing; the men were just complaining that about the trespasser and how nervy he was to invade their property. He should be taught a lesson. So, the boy teaches him a lesson. After all, his father passed to him a loaded rifle ready to be fired. So he should have been able to fire with impunity. There also is the sense that the boy isn't thinking through what pulling the trigger means. He just did it. He wasn't actually thinking through the consequences. This was a dispassionate act. He did it as much to see what would happen as he did because he felt his menfolk condoned his action:
There was no thought. I'm sure of that. There was only my own nature, who I am, beyond understanding.
How could I kill and feel nothing? Can we ever know how we have become?
There also is the sense that he has been goaded before on this trip. They stop on the way to camp to drink from a sulfer spring. The grandfather has brought a sack of lemons and cuts one up so the boy can use it while drinking the potent water. The men laugh at him when he does. They don't partake. The boy jumps to the truck bed, rifle in hand, scanning for deer. He states he is ready to shoot something. He has to prove himself. Later in the novel, he will cavort as a child in an attempt to win over the men but for the most part, he is determined to be considered as a man. Perhaps this is part of his nature. Perhaps it is part of the nature of most men, and he is different from most only because he is trying to honestly acknowledge it, without fanfare, bragging or, on the other hand, abject regret at the baseness of his nature. Years later, the narrator does regret the passing of his boyhood world because of his act, but that isn't quite the same thing as being sorry, is it?
According to Vann, hunting is what brings men together: "Our first reason to band together, to kill." Is it? Does it make things sound different, a little more civilized, if we say that humanity's first reason to band together are the basics of food and protection? Vann's narrator also likens the killing that takes place in the story to the story of Cain:
... and I wonder whether every story in the Bible comes from Cain. A riddle, all of it, testing a man and finding him worthy because he's willing to kill? Cain as our goodness, our faith, our murderousness as our salvation?
The boy takes another life. He does shoot a buck, and its death is up close, prolonged and horrifying. This time, when Cain kills Abel, another fellow creature, it is up close and he hears the mortally wounded creature's cries and looks deep into his eyes:
... this time Cain is shielded by nothing, this time he knows who he is.
And therein lies what the story of Cain means to the boy:
It may be a long time before he brings that stone down (on Abel), and it's in this moment we know Cain. The momentum of his life, everything out of control, everything misunderstood and recognized too late, that's how we are descended from Cain. All that was instinctual suddenly bearing consequence, our animal nature betrayed by consciousness. ... Part of us will act according to instinct, and that will never change. And one of our first instincts is to kill.
The only characters in the novel are male. The boy is being raised by his father and grandfather. The father's friend, Tom, has a daughter mentioned in passing and the boy's mother is mentioned once. This is a story about men. Vann's storytelling is a window -- just one window, but an opening nonetheless -- into a purely masculine frame of existence. Not every male will respond to it the same way, adding another layer to the complexity of what Vann has brought forward. Just as not every woman will respond to this novel in the same manner, or even want to read it. This is the most primal masculine work I've ever read; it goes far beyond what is usually thought of in terms of Hemingway masculinity. Nick Adams would have been running for cover from these men, and that would have been a wise decision.
Yet, Vann conveys the boy's huge respect for his grandfather. This is a character that harkens back to tales of the gods, farther back than the Old Testament, in Vann's telling. The author notes his deep respect for his own grandfather in the book. The fictional grandfather is an archetype. He is part of nature, not part of humanity:
My grandfather did not come from god. I'm sure of that. He came from something older, unthinking, unfeeling. He came from something as true as rock and stars, a place of no recognition, before names.
There is one spot where wonder and the grandfather's character are seen together. It's a scene that's easy to visualize; an old man gathering sugar pinecones. It's something he has done his entire life and he hoards them at home:
This is how I would like to remember him, standing with a newborn cone raised high in celebration under soft pale sugar pines, a breeze and late-day sun reaching through, more cones everywhere at his feet. The closest I ever saw to rapture, and the only indication of something good or soft or innocent in him, the only time he might have had a soul.
But this enormous figure that commands respect is not a benevolent figure. He does not dispense mercy. And he has not brought up his family to dispense mercy.
The immediate aftermath of the shooting is that the boy's father strikes him to the ground in disgust. It's an action that his grandfather will later do to his father. The generational strife is a central part of the story. In the middle of that first night, after the boy has killed a stranger, he wakes up to find his great mountain of an aged grandfather straddling him, ready to cut his throat. The grandfather later stabs the father with a fork. This is portrayed as Old Testament violence. Much is made in Vann's narrative of Cain and Abel -- as in the boy slaying a fellow man -- there also is the idea of the older generation sacrificing the younger -- as in Abraham and Isaac. But another sacrifice doesn't come along in the form of a ram that appears on the hillside where Isaac has been bound by Abraham.
Vann goes beyond the Old Testament to take on Jesus as well, and to try to reconcile the New Testament with his male lineage. According to Vann, Cain committed the first murder but
Jesus broke the law, broke the separation between living and dead. A collision of our two worlds, and it could only be catastrophic. Jesus released the dead into our lives, set all the dead wandering the earth, freed the wraiths and demons we fear now ... God wanted this. He sent his only son as an invasion of the otherworld into ours. This is the story of Jesus. After thousands of years of separate worlds, we finally had to admit that the demonland was inside us, and so we told this story of Jesus moving that stone, opening the gate ... Jesus is the recognition of the demon inside us, a recognition of the animal inside us, the beast. A recognition we wanted and needed.
Even accepting the way Vann stitches together pagan, Old and New Testament storylines, is this a wanted and needed recognition? That we're only animals? It's hard to not answer that in a way that doesn't come across as earnest undergraduate trying to be both realistic and optimistic, searching for more to life.
Just before the ultimate act of violence, the boy's father has time alone with him, trying to gather all the broken pieces in the aftermath of what happened and put their lives back together again:
You're my son, he said. I'm here to help you. I'm trying to figure out what the hell you are and trying to keep you from becoming that.
Is he saying Jesus was a monster or was he the sacrifice like Isaac was supposed to be? Was the sacrifice of Jesus a Pandora's box that gave the world all its ills instead of an act of healing?
Just because we are capable of violence does not mean that we also are not capable of healing, of forgiveness and of quiet strength that does not demand sacrifice of others. How the narrator and Vann feel love for the grandfather figure is also something that isn't immediately apparent. Unless he's saying that recognizing the monster in ourselves means being able to love the monster from whence we came.
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