Dirt, by David Vann, Harper, RRP$25.99/William Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 272 pages

The greatest movies were set in the American west, in the badlands, in Monument Valley, where John Ford roughnecks drank cowboy coffee and told stories of the days before the first rail line. The west was freedom, where the mania of the old world was spent in one final spree. As the territory was settled, the unhinged pushed on, further and further, until there was no country left, and that’s when the energy broke, pooling and devouring itself in California.

This is where David Vann’s haunting novel Dirt – dirt, which we were and we’ll be, the end state of all golden dreams – is set in 1985, almost 140 years after the failed crossing of the Donner Party. It takes place on a farm, a last piece of open land where Galen, who, 100 years before, might have been singing under the stars, is trapped with his mother, squabbling over money. A last patch of wild America, where the suburbs encroach on every side. “Theirs was the only undeveloped farmland for miles,” writes Vann. “Ten acres of walnuts, a few acres for the house and lawn, a couple of acres for the driveway. Everyone else was bunched up in quarter-acre lots or smaller.”

Without money for college, nor desire for any other kind of life, Galen stays at home – “a concrete block of despair, a place to give up and be forgotten” – stuck in the mundane chore and counter chore of family life. “Every day he felt he couldn’t stand it even one more day but every day he stayed.” Stuck because he needs his mom, loves his mom, hates his mom. And so he seeks escape via the metaphysical, transcendence being the poor man’s ticket to Hawaii.

Galen is skinny, a 22-year-old rail. He smells a lot of the time. You won’t like him. He’s full of himself, the sort of would-be-shaman who eats, regrets, vomits, craves, renounces craving, then does it all over again. He runs through fields naked, arms outstretched, in search of a vision that will never come. The worst sort of adolescent, a repeat reader of Siddhartha and Carlos Castaneda, he’s come to believe, without the fun of hallucinogens, that the world is nothing but his dream, its inhabitants just visions in his mind, obstacles presented by the universe on this turn around the wheel. (“Other people were the problem. They were distractions and attachments. They were noise. He heeded quiet. He needed to hear back across lifetimes ... ”) The most haunting line in Dirt is spoken by Galen’s mother, who, having made the mistake of being as insane as her son, calls from her place of entrapment: “People are real, Galen.”

Vann, who teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, has written a handful of earlier books, including a collection of short stories, Legend of a Suicide (2009), and Caribou Island (2011), the dark, ruminative award-winning novel that put this gifted writer on the map. The characters in Dirt read as archetypes, figures in a Beckett play: Galen, the boy who seeks escape; nursing-home-grandma, whose fading memory suggests the unbelievability of the past; Galen’s mother, Suzie-Q, who wants what all mothers want: to be loved, not bothered; aunt insane, who demands the money she knows is locked in a trust; Galen’s teen cousin, a sadist who uses the one thing she’s got to tease virgin Galen, thus representing the temptations of a fallen world. The resulting sex scenes are stunning, a dirty taboo pitched to comic perfection.

“Thank you, Galen said, getting down on his knees.

“This was as close as he would ever come to a shrine, he realised. This was the sacred, right here, her legs spread.”

The players, once set in motion, have to come to a bad end – you just know it – a tragedy that unfolds over the course of a vacation: cabin, icy river and relatives going at each other like rats. Characters fly off as the centrifuge spins, leaving Galen and Suzie-Q, proton and neutron, circling each other, heading towards collision.

The pressure of this is too much for Galen, who goes batty in the end, finally reaching that state of narcissistic mysticism in which the things of the world lose all corporeality, and everything turns into a symbol: the rivers whisper, do it, do it, do it; the shovel scolds, bury her before she buries you.

The last pages of Dirt are lit by a berserk energy. It’s as if Vann has pulled off the trick of putting us inside a Hitchcock maniac. “The hose impossibly large. Nowhere to hide within it. Too many windows and doors. A hundred things could be waiting in here and he’d never know.” If this is Rear Window, we are Jimmy Stewart and Galen is Raymond Burr, going about his business, seemingly unnoticed, until he catches us looking. When you finally put this book down, break the spell and walk away, you’re left with a deeper resonance, a lingering sadness. It’s a sense that here is where the great American drive west culminates: with a boy and his mom fighting over whatever wealth remains. Of course, if you know the fate of the Donner Party, you might believe it could’ve ended no other way.

Rich Cohen is author of ‘The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King’ (Jonathan Cape)

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