Dec/Jan 2011

Caribou Island

Zach Baron


In his memoir A Mile Down (2005), David Vann revisits the horrors of a sea voyage—a journey from which he nearly didn't return—while reflecting on the suicide of his father. Legend of a Suicide (2008), a suite of linked stories about a man and his son living in various uncivilized parts of Alaska, stops on Sukkwan, an isolated island that's home to a slaughterhouse of a cabin and little else. Caribou Island, Vann's third book and first novel, revisits the same dark territory, physical and otherwise, depicting a family haunted by the specter of self-annihilation and the siren call of the Alaskan wilderness. Alaska, in Vann's cosmology, is "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."

Clinging unsteadily to that edge in Caribou Island are Gary, a failed Berkeley medievalist–turned–impotent Alaskan dreamer, and Irene, a former schoolteacher with a headache that won't go away. (The latter malady eludes diagnosis, but one assumes it has something to do with her childhood memory of finding her mother hanging from a noose.) Among other things, the book is a portrait of a marriage gone bad—very bad. "In the beginning," Irene recalls, in the kind of unembarrassed prose Vann favors, "they had hunted together, footsteps in sync, bows held ready, listening for moose." But by the time the book opens, Irene and Gary are estranged, largely abandoned by their children, and in the midst of a driving storm, making a belated effort to build a cabin from scratch on the titular island. That storm is no coincidence, of course: In Vann's writing, the natural world is always both a repository for innocence and an unforgiving analogue for human turmoil.

For Gary, the cabin (this is, for better or worse, a book about a cabin) is "another attempt at purity." For Irene, it's a monument to the mounting failure of their relationship. To their stoner son Mark, it's a relief; to their daughter Rhoda, it's a distraction, keeping her from focusing on her own burgeoning, ill-advised relationship. What Vann's characters are trying to do is find the strength they lack inside in external things: marriage, work, drugs. What they are in fact doing is reinflicting, over and over, the wounds that were originally inflicted on them. You could generously call the massing storm clouds and despair that inflect every page of this novel foreshadowing for an ending that becomes obvious all too early, but it reads more like a fait accompli—the language steeped so deeply in the inevitable that any rogue sense of narrative possibility gets squeezed out.

Zach Baron is an editor at the Village Voice.

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