Build Your Cabin

Ian Sansom

  • Caribou Island by David Vann
    Penguin, 293 pp, £8.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 670 91844 7

David Vann’s novel – his debut, after a short story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), and a memoir, A Mile Down (2005) – is a book that makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road read like a walk in the park. Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite. After 200 pages of unrelenting misery, McCarthy breaks down and accepts the possibility of grace: after a long trudge through a post-apocalyptic landscape, a woman turns up on the last page, out of the blue, and says: ‘The breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.’ So that’s nice: there’s a glimmer, or a gasp, some mist on the mirror. Vann, on the other hand, after a similar slog, stands his ground, holds his breath, and neither offers nor accepts any mercy.

Gary and Irene are an Alaskan couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Gary is a graduate-school dropout who likes to recite ‘The Seafarer’ and who has failed, and continues to fail, in just about every enterprise he sets his hand to. He is a ‘champion at regret’. ‘Above all else, Gary was an impatient man: impatient with the larger shape of his life, with who he was and what he’d done and become, impatient with his wife and children, and then, of course, impatient with all the little things, any action not done correctly, any moment of weather that was uncooperative.’ Years before, Gary had wanted to be a medievalist, but found he didn’t have the patience for that either. ‘He was fine on the primary texts but couldn’t keep up on the secondary documents, long histories and registers, almanacs, journals, all in Middle English. Religious documents in Middle English, Old English and Latin. Then all the criticism, keeping up with current books and articles. It was just too much.’ You know the feeling.

Irene, meanwhile, is a retired schoolteacher whose mother committed suicide, and who starts toying with the idea herself. She has started suffering from blinding headaches. ‘Not worth living if you only felt pain, so if the pain seemed unending, the logical thing was to end your life.’ This is an error in logic, perhaps, but Irene is far beyond the reach of philosophy. She is out of sorts and out of joint. ‘Who she was today did not fit with two weeks ago, before the headaches, and who she was then did not fit with a few months ago, not yet retired, still in the classroom with the children.’ Gary has persuaded her to help him fulfil his life’s ambition by building a log cabin on a small uninhabited Alaskan island – Caribou Island. They build the cabin, and bicker and argue, while their daughter, Rhoda, back on the mainland, worries about them.

Rhoda has problems of her own. She’s in a loveless relationship with a hapless, horny dentist called Jim, who throws himself into an affair with a half-crazed prick-teaser called Monique. Rhoda’s brother, Mark, meanwhile, is a whacked-out stoner fisherman who, according to Rhoda, has been ‘an unreliable fuck’ all his life, and couldn’t care less about his parents. They’re all characters on the edge and they only need one little push to send them over. In the words of the narrator of one of the stories in Legend of a Suicide, these are people who have ‘already entered the last beautiful, desperate, far-ranging circlings’ of their lives. Welcome to Vann’s demon land.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in