David Vann's debut, Caribou Island, a beautifully dark novel, was both a fully realized tale and a portent of things to come. In Dirt, Vann is still exploring darkness and what it can do to families.

In 1985, Galen lives with his mother, Suzie-Q, in a secluded house in a suburb of Sacramento. His Aunt Helen and her daughter, Jennifer, visit many afternoons for tea and occasionally all four of them visit Grandma in a nearby nursing home. An idyll? Hardly. This is a family made so dysfunctional by lies, violence and abuse--physical and emotional--that even basic civility is lost to them.

Galen is 22 with no job, never went to college, bulimic, virginal and seeking transcendence in whatever New Age mantra or practice is available. Jennifer is 17, precocious, a sexual tease who tortures the besotted Galen. Once a year, everyone goes to the family cabin near Lake Tahoe and Suzie-Q tries to re-create her Norman Rockwell illusions about family fun--down to Grandma's chicken and dumplings.

This time, it all goes wrong because a revelation is made that changes everyone. Back home, Galen and his mother move toward an inevitable conclusion. Galen, crazed and out of control, tries to become one with the dirt, to become "a meditation on dirt." Naked, sweating and threatening, he digs and mounds dirt, wallows in it, making and remaking his world according to Siddhartha's meditation. He has finally internalized the fact that all that holds his family together is hatred and violence. The ending will leave you wide-eyed.  --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

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