The year is 1985 and twenty-two-year-old Galen lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded old house with a walnut orchard in a suburb of Sacramento, California. He doesn't know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother, losing her memory, has been shipped off to a nursing home. Galen and his mother survive on old family money - an inheritance that his Aunt Helen and seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, are determined to get their hands on.
A bulimic vegetarian who considers himself an old soul, Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath toward transcendence. He yearns for transformation: to free himself from the corporeal, to be as weightless as air, to walk on water. But he's powerless to stop the manic binges that overtake him, leading him to gorge on meat and other forbidden desires, including sex. A prisoner of his body, he is obsessed with thoughts of the boldly flirtatious Jennifer, and dreams of shedding himself of the clinging mother whose fears and needs also weigh him down.
When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain the transcendence he craves.
A powerful and shocking account of a family imploding: a story of hatred, sex and violence, Dirt will cement David Vann's reputation as one of the most original and powerful writers of his generation.
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Broken families, and the violence and destruction that love can wreak, continue to be his abiding themes…So builds the dreadful climax and dark denouement of this brilliant narrative. This is not a relaxing or consoling book. The reader feels some sympathy for Galen, whose suffering turns him into a bulimic and self-hating depressive. But he is also unremittingly selfish, deluded and abhorrent. He gives flesh to the notion that the victim eventually becomes the aggressor; that life taints and ruins, rather than redeems. The dirt of the title represents the final, violent sequence between Galen and his mother. But filth lies all over this novel: the tantalising young cousin who abuses Galen and then sleeps with him; the mother who adores and abhors the boy she brought into the world; and ultimately the muddied and muddled mind of Galen himself. This is a novel of violence, destruction and ruin. There is no salvation. And yet Mr Vann’s soaring writing carries it forward – a reminder of the beauty that can grace even the beastliest things. - The Economist
The characters in Dirt read as archetypes, figures in a Beckett play…The resulting sex scenes are stunning, a dirty taboo pitched to comic perfection…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…When you finally put this book down, break the spell and walk away, you’re left with a deeper resonance, a lingering sadness. - Financial Times
Another dispatch from dysfunctional suburbia by one of the US’s hottest writers…A morbid fascination with the family’s eye-poppingly vicious interactions keeps you turning the pages…It’s hard to forget. - Metro
Past master of family dysfunction hits the spot – again…Since the publication of his first much lauded novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has made something of a reputation for himself as a master of the dark twists of family dysfunction...Dirt is nothing if not Oedipal, sharing with this and other Greek myths its febrile, doomy atmosphere...Once we’re on the inevitable course to the denouement, the writing is all there. Vann really is a brilliant documentarian of folie de grandeur. From this point on, Dirt is unputdownable, thundering at breathtaking speed towards the shocking climactic act. Brilliantly chilling. - Evening Standard
Dirt is played out in an oppressive, crushing, claustrophobic wasteland, a setting that neatly mirrors the central relationship on which it centres…The scene is set for the mother of all family ding-dongs. And so it transpires…Vann expertly builds the pressure in the first half of the novel, so that what starts off as Galen's apathetic ennui quickly transforms itself under duress into something much more dangerous and poisonous. After a seemingly inevitable flashpoint event, the story begins an inexorable and tragic descent to a truly mind-boggling conclusion…The searing, penetrating heat of the California desert is brilliantly evoked here, and even a brief sojourn to a cabin in the Sierras only serves to highlight, upon the family’s return, just how destructive the relentless power of the sun is…The last hundred pages of Dirt are as audacious and uncompromising a piece of writing as I've read in a long time. Vann is a brave writer, daring to write about and depict things that most other authors would baulk at, but that’s what makes him so good – that unflinching eye for the darkness you could potentially find in any of us, given the wrong chain of events. If you want to feel good about the human condition, go elsewhere. If you want the naked, awful truth, then dive in. - Independent on Sunday
A pitch-perfect, unflinching exploration of a family’s brutal infighting…Vann’s rendering of the everyday gratings of family life is pitch-perfect. But he’s never shied away from the brutal and so the endless cycle of small family hurts is escalated into hatred and violence as Galen, his mother, aunt and cousin pit themselves against one another in an outlandish, horrifying and apocalyptic battle…A well-written, unflinching exploration of the often terrifying chasm between who we want to be, and who we actually are. - Sunday Telegraph
Uncompromisingly direct. - Guardian
David Vann has a talent for being able to pack a lot into very few words - and to make them all effective and forceful. ...compelling. If I start reading Vann I know that I'm going to have to keep reading no matter how painful, how distressing the story...what marks this book out as being something special is the forensic examination of the tipping point at which a disturbed mind, an unfocused mind tumbles into madness. - The Bookbag
A powerful story of a family on the verge of imploding, David Vann's novel might not be an easy read - but it is, undoubtedly, a book you will want to devour in a single sitting. - stylist.co.uk
Dirt’s basic set-up , a lone parent and a child locked together in unhealthy co-dependency, is reminiscent of southern tales by Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole and Tennessee Williams. And while Galen’s religious obsessions align Dirt more with O’Connor or Toole, it’s Williams’s world that the novel is otherwise closest to: the unforgiving, brain-invading heat; the incessant family squabbling; the autocratic patriarch (dead, but still looming in this case); the over-devoted mother; the furtive, incest-like relationship; and the failed, trapped central character, nevertheless convinced of his special gifts and destiny. - Literary Review
What Vann does so well is to take recognisably ordinary characters and put them in critical situations, where tiny decisions or actions have life-altering outcomes. This is what gives his books their nightmarish quality -- the feeling that these events could happen to anyone. - Irish Independent
Vann's writing is vivid and shocking, and his imagination is extraordinary. - Saga
I found it impossible to put down. I read it over a couple of rushed afternoons and found myself gasping for air…Days later I still couldn’t get Galen’s voice – that distinctive blend of mocking, vulnerable and cruel – out of my head…It [Dirt] is both brilliant and painful; comic and disturbing; full of despair about humanity and moments of warmth; deranged and beautifully executed. - Sunday Business Post
David Vann was born in the Aleutian Islands and spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska. His first book of fiction, the international bestseller Legend of a Suicide, has now been translated into seventeen languages and has won several prizes, including the Prix Medicis Etranger in France. His novel Caribou Island is an international bestseller. He is also the author of two bestselling non-fiction books, and has written for Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the Sunday Times, Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times and other magazines and newspapers. A current Guggenheim fellow and former Wallace Stegner fellow, he is currently a professor at the University of San Francisco.