Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review - Caribou Island by David Vann

Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn't fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.

The sentence above, uttered by one of its characters, could summarize David Vann’s elegantly bleak debut novel, Caribou Island. (His previously published work, Legend of a Suicide, was a critically acclaimed collection of short stories.)

From the moment we meet Irene, the book’s protagonist, and her husband of thirty years, Gary, we know they’re heading for disaster. We just don’t know what that disaster will entail or precisely what event will trigger it. We just know it’s looming over the entire book, from the very first page.

Gary and Irene are a middle-aged couple who live in the tiny town of Soldotna on the sparsely populated Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. In good weather, it can be a place of idyllic beauty – lakes, inlets, and islands, ringed by mountains and towering pines. In bad weather, and the Kenai Peninsula seems to suffer from more than its share of bad weather, it’s a forbidding place, claustrophobic and stormy, and hemmed in with low lying fogs and dark, brooding clouds.

We meet Gary, a failed academic, who turned to boat building and fishing and Irene, a former preschool teacher, when they are newly retired (early retirement) and empty nesters. They do have two grown children, Rhoda and Mark, neither of whom is faring very well in life. Mark, a fisherman, seems to be something of a drifter as well, while Rhoda, a veterinary assistant, dreams of marrying her live-in lover, Jim, a wealthier-than-most dentist, who dreams of nothing more than bedding as many women as he can before he married Rhoda (and probably after as well; this is not a man to take marriage vows seriously). Rhoda loves and worries about her parents. Mark may love them, but he certainly doesn’t worry about them. With no one else in the house but them, and so much time on their hands, Gary and Irene have to face the fact that there is, and has been, trouble in their marriage or find a new means to look the other way. They choose to find a new means to look the other way.

With no plans, no specifications, no tools to speak of, and with an early winter setting in, Gary rashly decides to build the cabin he’s always dreamed of on Caribou Island, a small, uninhabited island in the middle of Skilak Lake. He and Irene, he thinks, can do all the building themselves, never mind that a cabin on Caribou Island has never been Irene’s dream at all. While Gary considers the building of the cabin a search for authenticity, Irene sees it as “an expression of despair...a sign that Gary hadn’t found a way to fit into his real life.” “Real life,” however, at least for Gary, is changing, but dream or no dream, Skilak Lake is no Walden Pond, and Gary is no Henry David Thoreau. Clearly, Gary is still trying to flee whatever made him flee his dissertation in medieval studies in Berkeley and settle in Alaska. He romanticizes the building of the cabin:

Holding nails in his teeth, more in his pocket. Taste of galvanized steel. Arms and shoulders ropy now, fit, corded from work, enough time out here. Muscles a way to remember and return, hard work the only solace.

The fact that living in a small (16’x12’), unheated cabin on Caribou Island has never been Irene’s dream at all doesn’t seem to bother Gary. He now thinks of his own marriage as “a thing ill-conceived from the start, something that had made both their lives smaller” and all marriage as “the early death of self and possibility.” Alaska, to Gary, represents a “warrior society” in which he can cross “the whale road into fjords in a new land.” In his own mind, he’s a modern day Viking, charting new territory, and Irene, at least in Gary’s dreams, is nowhere to be found.

Despite the increasing inclemency of the weather, which is so prominent in this brutal novel that it has the force of an actual character, Gary forges ahead. What should have been a labor of love for two early retirees has become, instead, one man’s dark obsession. And though Irene thinks of the cabin as Gary’s “idiot project,” she continues to help him build it. The alternative, she thinks, would be worse, and would surely result in the end of her marriage, something she doesn’t think she can tolerate after so many years together.

Strong feelings held inside have a way of making themselves known, however. As Irene’s emotional state deteriorates, and as she recovers from a virus she picked up helping Gary haul tree limbs in the freezing rain, she begins experiencing terribly disabling headaches that puzzle her, her children, who think she’s just become a crotchety woman who can’t be pleased, and her doctor. In a strange twist, only Gary seems to recognize these headaches for what they are: an expression of Irene’s inner turmoil. She’s come to hate her life, and like Gary, she now believes her marriage was a mistake. The deeper cause of Irene’s disquiet, we know, lies in a terribly traumatic childhood experience.

As the temperature plummets and the horrible winter closes in, Gary and Irene, who is now taking animal tranquilizers in an effort to blunt her pain, press on with the harebrained idea of the cabin, even as their marriage continues to unravel a bit more each day. We know something’s going to happen, and we know that something isn’t going to be good, but we just aren’t sure what that something is going to be.

Dread mounts in every sentence; the climax tips the book into horror. I applaud Vann for having the courage not to back away from the brutality that seems inevitable in this story. Most authors today seem to feel the need to placate their readers with a heavy dose of saccharine. David Vann doesn’t.

Frankly, I didn’t care for the inclusion of Rhoda and Jim in this book; when the story focused on them, I was always anxious to get back to Gary and Irene. Still, I think Caribou Island would have been too brutal for many readers if Vann hadn’t “gotten away” from Gary and Irene and the building of the cabin for short periods. And Rhoda’s story is far from being a happy one. Like her mother, she’s definitely not a woman who’s pleased with herself and her life. Here are Rhoda’s thoughts about herself as she waits in a small diner:

The cheap carpet had fleur-de-lis patterns, mock royalty. The divider wall trimmed with a strip of light brown plastic where it met carpet, the heads of nails showing. She hated cheap, and depressing, and cold, and lonely. That's all she was. Just someone who hated these things, and was running from them.

I’m also not a fan of the short, clipped prose Vann writes, though it is beautiful prose. I have to admit that I’m a fan of long, winding, convoluted sentences that fold back on themselves, time and time again. I adore Henry James and William Faulkner. I do, however, have to say that the truncated sentences in Caribou Island are written to “fit” the subject matter perfectly. We really feel the brutality of the weather, the characters’ emotional distress. But why? Why? Why? Why do authors feel the need to dispense with quotation marks? When will they realize that proper punctuation really doesn’t get in the way? This, however, is a small quibble, and Vann does say his favorite book is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (McCarthy likes to forego the punctuation marks as well, though I can’t remember if he did that in Blood Meridian.)

I’ve always loved multiple narrators, but I feel Caribou Island may have a few too many. While I was reading the book, I felt I didn’t need to hear from Carl (the non-resident boyfriend of Monique, a woman Jim is desperately trying to bed), and I was anxious to get back to Gary and Irene, though I liked Carl quite a bit. Again, though, I applaud Vann for having the courage to not only give us multiple narrators, but to defy the “rule” of switching point-of-view right in the middle of a scene. And, in retrospect, I have to admit that Carl presented a refreshing change from the irritable, selfish and depressed Alaskan residents.

I also applaud Vann for not giving us a romantic “picture postcard” view of Alaska. Yes, I know the scenery can be lush and beautiful, but I also know winter comes early to the forty-ninth state, and it comes hard. I’m tired of TV “specials” that portray Alaska only as an unspoiled paradise, filled with sparkling clean rivers and pristine glaciers. Alaskan towns are small and often shabby. It can be very difficult to find what you need, let alone find what you want. The people can be rough-and-tumble and very suspicious of strangers rather than kind. It’s difficult to travel from one place to another, even if you own your own private plane. The long, dark winters, in which the heavy clouds close in are claustrophobic in their intensity, and it takes a physically and emotionally strong person to survive, to not be destroyed by the terrifying loneliness of it all. To his credit, Vann, who was born in Alaska, gives us both sides of the state, the good and the bad, though with an early winter setting in, he focuses on the brutal, and it’s the brutal and the claustrophobic that suit his book perfectly.

Despite my little quibbles, I thought Caribou Island was a magnificent book, one that stands head-and-shoulders above most debut novels. It’s graceful and poetic while still retaining every ounce of its inherent brutality and horror.

Some professional reviewers have criticized the ending of Caribou Island as being “too much.” I don’t agree, and I don’t consider this a spoiler. We know nothing good can come out of the situation in which Gary and Irene find themselves. For Vann to have backed away from a brutal ending would have, in my opinion, been compromising his literary integrity. I thought the ending was perfect. No, it wasn’t happy or heartwarming, but not everything in life is. It was, however, perfectly set up by its author, and nothing about it felt forced. As one professional reviewer said, it’s an ending “as haunting and realized as any in recent fiction.”

I hated to set this book aside to do other things. I wanted to read the entire thing, from beginning to end, with nary a break. Really. It was that compelling and that savagely beautiful.


Recommended: Most definitely, to those who like highly literary fiction and to those who can stand a bleak and brutal ending. If you need a happy ending, then this book no doubt isn’t for you.

Note: David Vann is an Alaska native. He was born on Adak Island and spent his childhood in Ketchikan before going to Stanford on a Wallace Stegner fellowship. His first book, the short story collection, Legend of a Suicide, failed to attract so much as an agent for more than a dozen years. Then, in 2007, the manuscript won a Grace Paley Prize and found a small publisher. Vann’s name was then compared to Hemingway and Richard Russo, and not without justification, though neither author ever wrote an ending as brutal as the one in this book.

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