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Book Review

‘Island’ has its peaks and valleys

By Max Winter
January 20, 2011

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When writing about landscapes, David Vann writes with a poetry born of connectedness, of deep observation. When building his story, he shows a sharp intuition for dynamic jump-cuts and disjuncture. When writing about people, his intuition fails him, and we cannot suspend enough disbelief to care about their plights. Which is unfortunate, because his characters’ plights are serious and, if handled better, would have made for a truly devastating novel.

The fully described, if not fully realized, characters in “Caribou Island’’ are connected to each other through blood, family ties, marriage, or rage; the novel tests and explores these ties as it develops, and yet in the process we don’t necessarily learn much about them. Gary, a long-failed doctoral student, has lived off the Alaskan land for many years, and he is building a log cabin with his reluctant, resentful, and unenthusiastic wife, Irene. As we learn more about Gary’s simultaneous frustration with his life and desire to change it, we also learn that Irene is very sick, stricken with chronic insomnia and an unspecified pain behind her eyes. Jim, a dentist, and Irene’s daughter Rhoda, a vet, live together in equal parts squabbling dissatisfaction and cordial harmony. This harmony is stretched when Jim has an affair with a young trust-funder visiting Mark and Karen, Rhoda’s barista brother and his girlfriend.

In a similar fashion, the event hanging over all the other events in the novel, and ultimately deciding the direction in which the narrative will turn, is the suicide of Irene’s mother, which provides a shocking launch to the book. This is territory Vann has covered before, in his collection “Legend of a Suicide.’’ Additionally, this is a semi-autobiographical story line: Vann’s own stepmother died by suicide. Vann’s writing here is confident and immediate, the most crisply and evocatively described passage in the book. Unfortunately, this sets the bar too high for the rest of the novel. The events that follow, though some are crafted for shock value, can’t live up to the book’s beginning. When Jim’s mistress simultaneously ends the affair and issues a threat that he can’t afford to ignore, the act seems forced. Even Gary and Irene’s struggles against nature as they try, and largely fail, to build a sturdy cabin on an isolated island seem hollow, possibly even re-fried, all the more so when Gary silently calls the failed house “the outward shape of how he had lived his life.’’

The contrast between Vann’s writerly strengths and weaknesses is startling. Alaska itself, cliche though it might be to say it, is a remarkable character in this book. It provides a backdrop for the minimal dialogue in the book. Vann’s description, when he writes about “clusters of steep-roofed wooden houses right on the water that have no name outside themselves,’’ or a “forest nonconcealing, open to the sky, too bare, too stunted to cover,’’ has its own palpable life about it. The cadences are memorable, the words rich with layers of meaning. Unfortunately, the dialogue and internal monologues don’t live up to this level of description. Their minimalism is more minimal than anything else. It is clear that the characters feel both pain and satisfaction that is quite profound, but Vann’s ear for dialogue is weak, and so we don’t care as much, as readers, as we should. “Huh,’’ “yeah,’’ “uh,’’ “what,’’ and other similar interjections occur all too often, leaving a stale aftertaste. This, ultimately, is what the novel leaves us with. Vann invests his talent unevenly, and so the final impact, regardless of the drama in its brain-jolting finale, is too faint for the novel’s subject.

Max Winter is the author of “The Pictures.’’ He can be reached at maxw28@yahoo.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this review incorrectly identified which one of Vann’s relatives committed suicide. It was his father.

CARIBOU ISLAND By David Vann

Harper, 293 pp., $25.99