[the book rat project] Week 13: A Gothic Success



It's time for another installment of the Book Rat Project, the sustained experiment in which a book critic (my Phoenix colleague Eugenia Williamson) attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (me).


After last week’s qualified disappointment, Eugenia decided to go in a very different direction and chose David Vann’s newest literary horror story, Dirt.


I had a hard time getting Dirt; in the first 48-hours I don’t think I made it through 15 pages. But then something clicked and before I knew it I was turning the pages so quickly I didn’t have time to tweet any excerpts.


Galen, a 22-year-old, new age obsessed, emotionally stunted young man and his mother live on an old family estate, subsisting off a thinning trust fund—money that his Aunt Helen and cousin, Jennifer, are desperate to get their hands on. One night, while lashing out at his mother for holding back his spiritual growth, Galen unexpectedly gives his Aunt and Cousin the opportunity they’ve been waiting for, and not long after he finds himself caught in an act that will destroy his last hope for freedom.


Dirt might not take off like a race horse, but it rapidly turns into a dark meditation on multi-generational violence, before transforming into a kind of literary horror novel of the sort that Steven King could only dream of writing. Every page of manages a rare act of acrobatic brilliance; the story twists, turns, prods and pokes until the last few brutalizing paragraphs and I found myself thinking about these characters for days after I’d finished.


But what I found most impressive was that Dirt managed to preserve a very real sense of humor—granted it’s the humor of Kafka’s The Trial and Gogol’s Dead Souls, which is to say it’s a brutal humor that won’t be for everyone. Vann’s newest offering moves from the rhetoric of the cheaply sublime to the authentically traumatized with grace without shying away from the absurd. The combination had me laughing in self-defense on more than one occasion.


So while I might not have managed to tweet very much this week—apologies to followers of The_Book_Rat—it wasn’t for lack of interest. On the contrary, this was another case of a book sucking me in so completely that I lost track of time.


Given everything I’ve written so far, it seems like I should be giving this book an A, and yet I can’t bring myself to go that far; while I found Dirt deeply enjoyable I felt let down by an ending that, while arguably inevitable, could have been more deeply explored. Too often this was a flaw in the narrative in total: Vann hinted at shadows and stories I would have been happier to read, but don’t let these minor complaints deter you from picking up this fantastic example of literary horror.


The Book Rat Letter Grade: A- 


An truly week has kept Eugenia from settling on my next assignment, but have no fear Book Rat fans! I'll announce the next book via twitter as soon as I have it in my hands. Stay tuned!

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