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Originally published Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'Dirt': A loner's twisted family unravels in David Vann's novel

In his new novel, "Dirt," David Vann throws together an isolated man, his overbearing mother and several odd relatives in a this-will-not-end-well tale that is hard to turn away from.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Dirt'

by David Vann

Harper, 272 pp., $25.99

The nagging suspicion that something twisted is about to happen makes reading novels by David Vann an almost perverse thrill.

He delivers in spades with his latest effort, the suffocating family tragedy "Dirt."

The story revolves around a socially isolated 22-year-old man named Galen, who lives with his overbearing and needy yet emotionally distant mother Suzie-Q among the walnut orchards and fig trees of Central California. She has cut Galen off from the world, but he finds momentary escape, if not transcendence, in studying New Age philosophy and reading books like "Siddhartha."

But even the novel's opening line, "Galen waited under the fig tree for his mother," hints at something sinister.

As in Vann's previous novel "Caribou Island," things are seriously amiss in this household.

The trouble comes to a head during a disastrous retreat at a cabin in the Sierra Mountains, in an emotional free-for-all involving Galen, Suzie-Q, her elderly and mentally diminished mother, Galen's Aunt Helen and her daughter Jennifer, an insouciant 17-year-old who welcomes Galen's physical attraction to her.

In every family there are secrets, lies and denials, things left too long unsaid and things that should never have been uttered at all, but nothing compares to the ugly silences and prickly outbursts of this bunch.

During one of Galen and Jennifer's trysts, Suzie-Q happens to catch a glimpse, and she later threatens to turn her son over to the authorities.

This sends the New Agey Galen over the edge.

Perhaps Vann wants Galen's unraveling to come off as bitterly humorous, a sly poke at New Age philosophy, but it's actually just sad.

Here is a flawed son lashing out at his equally flawed mother, a single woman who has sheltered him to the point of denying him money for college, travel and other youthful pursuits but who justly questions his fling with an underage cousin.

They aren't the only people in this book with flaws, though. Helen and Jennifer are little more than con artists, and the grandmother is accused of harboring dark family secrets.

The woodsy Sierras and sun-drenched family farm Vann depicts ought to evoke tranquillity, but instead they suggest calm between storms.

Vann's famously clipped language creates tension in the most mundane situations, as when Galen's mom serves him tea early in the story.

As he sips, he takes 10 breaths, as if in meditation, "letting attachment to the world slip away."

In Galen's obsessive quest for a quieting of his psyche, he apparently will do anything.

We are constantly reminded of his desire to experience a cosmic level of solitude, "to create a fortress against all that would distract."

"He wanted no part of human society," we are told.

But it's hard to break free from society, or a family burdened by so much unearthed resentment. And as Galen graphically digs himself deeper into the delusion that he can, he just ends up in over his head.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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