Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Dirty Job

DIRT, by David Vann, made me want to take a shower and an antidepressant. And I'm not a depressive. I needed to wash it off and purge it from my system, physically and mentally. For me, it was difficult to get through and to be done with.

It is that bad.

And you know what? I think it was intended to be so. In that respect it was a success.

Why do I think such terrible things about DIRT?

Because its title characterizes it. It is about people who are dirty, filthy, and squalid. Its story is soiled, like someone defecating, and at its end, it's ready to bury the fecal material and you hope it's digger will fall in, too. As a novel, it doesn't have a story arc in the conventional sense. It lacks a valid protagonist and gives voice throughout to a flatulent pro-antagonist, who spouts New Age philosophy and practices. All of its characters are corrupt, contemptible, and turbid, or incompetent.

Yet, as a work of fiction, it is well written and executed --- pun intended.

It's setting --- in a California nut orchard --- makes obvious that its characters are wacko. They certainly live up to it.

Galen is the twenty-two-year-old son of an insecure, manipulative mother, Susie Q. His mother is doing everything possible to prevent Galen from growing up and becoming independent, yet she herself relies on the resources of her institutionalized mother, who has dementia. Other characters include Galen's Aunt Helen, who apparently also is dependent on her mother and hates her sister. She is, also, a loser. And then there is Helen's seventeen-year-old daughter, Jennifer, a seemingly independent, promiscuous spitfire and opportunist. She is the only character, for me, whose soil may be somewhat fertile.

Normally, Galen would be the protagonist, but he's not up to the job in the novel, even though apparently he can get it up. He doesn't have any of the characteristics of a hero. He isn't endowed with courage or strength or celebrated for bold exploits. It's pretty much the opposite: he is a coward who is weak and timid. What twenty-two-year-old man with any moxie sticks around for the kind of squalor his mother dishes out? So instead Galen takes the role as the villain. He does a good job of it.

So a protagonist in DIRT is absent or nebulous --- maybe it's some "principle of philosophy" or "and idea about the contamination of generational family dysfunction and suicide." To tell you the truth, I don't know what it is. But I will say this, the novel makes me think. It has that much going for it.

Read it, but don't let it soil you.

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