It is 1978, and three generations have set out on a family hunting trip to Goat Mountain in northern California. The narrator is a man looking back on his eleven-year-old self, so eager to make a first kill. Along with his grandfather, his father, and his father's best friend, Tom, the boy is prepared for a marathon of deer tracking except the day's victim will be human, a poacher the men catch on their land. This murder occurs in the first chapter, and the rest of the novel is about its psychological aftermath, as the men weigh their complicity and decide whether to cover up the crime.
The opening sentences display Vann's compact style as well as the vivid sense of place, with color, smell, and texture adding up to a description worthy of John Steinbeck: "Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day. Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed. The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body."
The novel begins in medias res, not pausing to give backstory or biographies; indeed, it divulges minimal information about the characters. In fact, Tom, the least important character, is the only one given a name. Meanwhile, short, choppy phrasing and the absence of speech marks foster an initial sense of disorientation.
Goat Mountain is an isolated microcosm, existing outside of time and apart from society's laws; as the boy recalls, "We were an island." In the world of the novel, such an ancient place harkens both backward, to the biblical desert where the Israelites wandered and Jesus suffered the devil's temptation, and forward to the empty, post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Vann's content and style are heavily influenced by religious language. Nearly every chapter opens with a biblical allusion. Killing the poacher recalls stories of human sacrifice, such as Jesus's crucifixion or Abraham offering his son Isaac to appease God. Christian references saturate the text: altars, sacraments, and curses are everywhere, and even the simplest act of standing or waking is freighted with religious significance when phrased as "I rose again." In addition, the continuing symbolism of the goat links to both to the devil and the New Testament's imagining of the Final Judgment, where goats are cursed and forever separated from sheep, as well as to the pagan god Pan. The Christian references are absolutely unavoidable in a book like this but even someone not raised with a religion should have enough general cultural awareness to recognize the allusions.
The most persistent story, however, is that of Cain, who, in the biblical narrative, committed humanity's first murder and became an exile. The boy describes Goat Mountain as being "As close as we'd know to Eden," yet after the novel's violent events, "I have no land now, and I can no longer visit our history." Through his insistent questioning of biblical standards of morality, he suggests that there might be a more primal system of deciding right and wrong human instinct. And, indeed, the deepest instinct of all is towards killing: "it seemed we were put here to kill what if we had never been told that killing a man was bad?"
It cannot be denied that the novel seems thin on plot: very little "happens," as such; most of the action is internal, as the characters ponder the meaning of their crime. Apart from the poacher's death, the only major occurrence is the boy's butchery of a buck, a terribly visceral scene. Yet a prescribed method places this killing within acceptable boundaries: "Ritual. What it does is make the horrifying normal."
Those unfamiliar with Vann's previous work may not be prepared for Goat Mountain's tone of high Greco-Shakespearean tragedy. His greatest achievement is Caribou Island (2011), another gory marvel of family catastrophe, while his first work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide (2008), was a pseudo-autobiographical look at his father's suicide. Now, again, Vann has taken inspiration from his own history: he dedicates the book to his Cherokee grandfather, the patriarch of those family hunting trips to Goat Mountain, and acknowledges that the novel exorcises "the stories of my violent family" but also ponders, perhaps from that Native American tribe's 'pre-Christian' perspective, "what to do with Jesus."
Vann's vision of an atavistic, nihilistic world is unremittingly bleak: "the planet turning beneath us. Each of us alone now All vacuums of meaning." There is nothing easy or pleasant about reading a book like Goat Mountain, but as a bibliotherapist, who believes in the healing properties of books, I hold that the experience can be good for you. Reading unmitigated tragedies can be cathartic in the classical sense: inducing feelings of terror and pity, but ultimately relief that readers have survived the story unscathed; we do not have to suffer through these circumstances ourselves.
If the parable is too overt and repetitive (even at novella length it can feel too long), its subversion of religious imagery is still unforgettable. Could it be that violence is a language of its own? Might the seemingly inescapable cycle of taboo and transgression simply be a random product of human evolution? These are some of the questions Vann raises in this disturbing, audacious, and deeply impressive allegory.
This review was originally published in November 2013, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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