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by David Vann

The year is 1985 and Galen is a bulimic, arrogant young man living at home with his highly emotionally dependent mother Suzie-Q. Home is a semi-isolated old house in a suburb of Sacramento, with acres of land including an ancient walnut orchard whose preservation has become an obligation rather than a pleasure. Galen doesn’t know his father and his mother won’t reveal who he is.

The homestead belongs to his grandmother now living in an old people’s home and suffering from dementia. Grandmother provides them with an allowance which enables the two of them to live there, but Suzie-Q‘s older sister Helen, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Jennifer, feel that some of the family money is rightfully theirs. The sisters have very different memories about their past especially when it concerns their domineering, violent father. Hard-hearted Helen has no time for Suzie-Q’s simpering sentimentality and Galen’s self-inulgence.

Galen’s emotional health is, to say the least, fragile. Isolated and dependent, his relationship with his mother is toxic. He sees himself as an aesthete and is a devotee of meditation. His favourite book is Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s classic story about an individual’s quest for the meaning of life. His worldly desires are few, he deprives himself of meat and tries to banish carnal thoughts. But this is a twenty two-year-old, emotionally unstable young man we’re talking about and, when the more worldly-wise, sexually predatory Jennifer starts to torment him, it’s just about all he can bear.

Deluded Suzie-Q thinks that a trip for all of them (including granny) to the family cabin in the mountains will give them a chance to talk things out, but tensions mount and inevitably everything descends into chaos. On their return home, Galen and his mother have an inescapable stand-off culminating in an utterly compulsive and utterly shocking denouement.

This is a very powerful book about extreme family dysfunction, beautifully written, totally without redemption and will leave you completely exhausted.

Irene Haynes

Published by William Heinemann – 258 pp

DIRT is out in paperback on the 2nd May published by Windmill.


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