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Vann novel compels, but gloom too one-note

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2011

“Caribou Island” is a dark and depressing novel that offers no uplift and little hope for its troubled characters, a dysfunctional family who stagger from one desperate situation to the next across a brutal Alaskan landscape. This isn’t the type of book for those who require a minimum level of fun or relaxation in their reading experience.

First-time novelist David Vann, a former magazine journalist and author of a well-regarded short story collection also about Alaska, crafts beautiful sentences. He’s also capable of keen insight into the motivation of his damaged characters, and certainly well-rendered tragedy has a rich tradition in literature.

But even Shakespeare sneaked a few jokes into “Hamlet.” Vann’s novel is compelling at times and even occasionally spellbinding, but he fails to leaven the relentless darkness of his characters’ circumstances long enough to make us truly care about them.

Vann’s Alaska shares little with the idyllic frontier of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” TV show. It’s a bleak wasteland peopled by losers and lost souls: “the end of the world, a place of exile,” Vann writes. “Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn’t cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge.”

Two of those exiles are Gary and Irene, married about 30 years and now in late middle age. Gary, a failed scholar of medieval literature, is prone to hatching grandiose plans that collapse into disappointment — not the least of which was his decision to move to Alaska early in the marriage.

Three decades later, the relationship is sustained only by grudges and petty suspicions, with Irene — a recently retired preschool teacher — burying her deep unhappiness inside a shell of bitter sarcasm.

But Gary has one more plan: to build a small, rustic cabin on Caribou Island, a tiny hunk of land in the middle of the lake along which they’ve lived for many years. There he and Irene will live out their sunset years, isolated from society amid the severe beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

While Vann has a gift for description, he too frequently uses the unforgiving Alaskan landscape as a metaphor for alienation. Characters rarely turn around without meeting another dark, low-hanging cloud or bone-chilling gust of wind.

Irene hates Gary’s cabin plan but goes along with it, terrified he will leave her if she doesn’t. Vann fails to explain why Irene fears this outcome, when a quick divorce would appear to make all the sense in the world for this miserable marriage. The couple set to work on the cabin, racing to beat an early winter as Irene grits her teeth against a series of increasingly consciousness-shattering headaches.

The couple’s adult children offer little help or solace, apparently doomed to fall into the same traps that ensnared their parents. Daughter Rhoda wants to help her clearly distraught mother, but is distracted by her own unfulfilling relationship with a philandering dentist. Son Mark avoids his parents’ problems altogether, squandering his East Coast education by retreating into dead-end jobs and a cloud of pot smoke.

Vann keeps the pages turning with the skill of the best mystery novelists, as we wonder if a construction project that feels increasingly futile and even dangerous will ever be completed. But Vann is interested in mysteries that don’t have simple solutions: Can a marriage last for 30 years without any love in it? What can parents do to help their children escape the same mistakes they made?

While Vann’s muscular prose keeps the tension building, putting “Caribou Island” down for the last time leaves only a sour taste.



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