Beware the terrible meek. That could be the moral, if there were one, of David Vann’s “Dirt.” A domestic tragedy played out in small, but inexorable steps, this novel chronicles the downfall of one already quite dysfunctional family, through the actions of its crumbling protagonist, Galen.
Ostensibly a seeker, Galen is a lost and tortured soul. Through a hodgepodge of spiritual masters, from the Buddha to Carlos Castenada, he strives for transcendence. Twenty-two and stuck living with his mother, apparently because of poverty, Galen tries to fast and rise above earthly things. But his appetites keep tripping him up.
Even with nothing to do — the idea of getting a job and moving out is never considered — Galen cannot resist temptation. If it isn’t the pigs in a blanket his mother serves, it’s his 17-year-old cousin, Jennifer, who delights in teasing him sexually. With nowhere to go (except to visit his grandmother in her nursing home), he’s alone in his struggle. Except, of course, that his mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin end up involved during a family weekend at a cabin, with tragic results.
The other family members are hardly innocent bystanders. Galen’s mother, we learn, has tied up the family funds to preserve her lifestyle in a secluded old house in Northern California, and in some ways she seems to feed off her son’s dependence. Galen’s aunt is furious about the state of affairs and with the way the grandmother has been shipped off, and Jennifer is, at best, a confused and somewhat vicious young woman. There’s a reason for this family dysfunction, of course, which is revealed in bits and pieces. That history did not directly affect Galen, however. He’s a whole new kind of messed up, and the way he’s presented — as our de facto hero — gives us few clues as to what caused the damage to his soul.
Told in Galen’s flat, almost nondescript voice, “Dirt” is loaded with the kind of precise detail that exposes his delusion. “He didn’t care about anything that other people cared about,” he brags to himself. “He was not here to be a slave to houses and cars and jobs and marriage and kids and TV and all that crap.” Though, of course, he delights in his meditation-inducing Kitaro tapes. His fantasies about himself are taken to the point of being ridiculous: The pleasure of lust is “the same as despair,” he concludes, comparing himself to the Buddha. And while that may be true, Buddha didn’t reach that conclusion while thumbing through a Hustler magazine.
There’s a lot of humor here, of a very dark vein. And Vann, a Guggenheim fellow, excels at sly truths. Galen’s self-aggrandizement neatly skewers not only New Age philosophies but also many of our common assumptions about family and community. What do we owe our children — or our aging parents? What are our real needs, and how should we best distribute our resources? Even his grandmother, who has dementia, raises questions about the nature of the self, in terms more profound than Galen can understand. “Do you know what it’s like to not remember?” Galen’s grandmother asks. “It’s like being no one, but still having to live anyway.”
If that sounds brutal, it is. And that’s the basic problem with “Dirt.” Clearly, Vann doesn’t care about creating likable characters, and his are so repellent that they force the reader to detach, if not stop reading. Yes, the casual cruelties are leavened with wit, and the imaginative story has a compelling thrust. There is no redemption at its end, though; no catharsis. “Dirt” leaves the reader feeling vaguely queasy, as if from a surfeit of something gone bad.