Sometimes you pick up a book you've never heard of before just because you like the cover. Sometimes you regret the impulse, and other times, as with my recent reading of David Vann's recent novel Caribou Island, you're very, very grateful. [We're showing the UK cover on the right, which is the one Jeff picked up, and we think is the more attractive one. --Ed.]
Vann chronicles the darkly decaying marriage of Gary and Irene in a remote Alaskan town in a way that conjures up echoes of Cormac McCarthy and Martin Amis. Which is to say, Vann's pitiless in his examination but also at times darkly humorous.
Gary thinks he settled for Irene and blames her for his series of failures. Irene knows that Gary's delusional, and realizes that the cottage he wants to build on an isolated island is a test. If she doesn't go along with the idea, Gary will use is as an excuse to leave her. Much of the novel involves Gary's increasingly quixotic quest to build a cottage in ridiculous weather conditions. Gary has no real idea what he's doing, and every step of the way berates Irene to cover up his own shortcomings.
Over the course of Caribou Island, the building of this misshapen mess of nails and boards and inadequate roofing takes on an almost mythical quality. The amazing attention to detail in describing their efforts speaks to full-on obsession, a descent into madness. Even a simple scene in which Gary clears dead wood--with its description of "dark earth, rich and airy, but so many runners and roots he could never get a shovelful"--manages to create tension.
But as oddly mesmerizing as this interplay of carpentry and marriage becomes, the author wisely offsets the claustrophobia of this portrait with the story of the couple's daughter, Rhoda, who plans on an engagement to a dentist named Jim. Rhoda's more in love with the idea of marriage than with Jim in particular, and Jim... well, Jim has his own problems.
When Jim spots a sexy young backpacker named Monique, the encounter sparks a full-on mid-life crisis. Jim woos Monique while still living with Rhoda. Monique is very aware of her appeal, and proceeds to make Jim pay for her charms, through special helicopter tours of glaciers, fancy dinners, and much more--injecting an absurdist's sense of humor into the novel. Vann has a great sense for comic timing, even if his ultimate aims are more serious. He also paints an evocative picture of small-town Alaska, including the great beauty (and deadly qualities) of its wilderness.
I marked a great many pages out of pure enjoyment at Vann's observations about human nature or a great turn of phrase. Often, descriptions of the natural world seem to comment on the characters, for example this passage on dead halibut: "Flat ghosts. Sideways mouths and thick lips, open, expressions of despair." Other times, Vann is spot-on about subjects like memory, as when Irene tries to remember a day in her childhood when she rode a sled with her deadbeat father. She remembers multiple endings, one in which they flip, another in which they don't, and several others. "No one of these endings was more real than the next, and so it seemed the entire thing was made up. Mostly likely she had never had a sled at all."
Ultimately, the story of Gary and Irene influences that of Rhoda and Jim in unexpected ways. Ultimately, too, the book takes a much darker turn, reminiscent of the best of writers like Derek Johnson. Caribou Island is an innervating, tense, taut thriller about the human condition--and one of my favorites thus far this year.