David Vann: Caribou Island

David Vann’s previous book, Legend of a Suicide, was one of the most interesting debuts of 2009. I read it and enjoyed it – particularly the extraordinary central novella ‘Sukkwan Island’ – but that was during a hiatus in blogging for me, so I didn’t review it. I vowed not to make the same mistake with this, Vann’s debut novel.

Caribou Island should be familiar to readers of Legend of a Suicide for a number of reasons. It has the same setting: the unforgiving and isolated terrain of Alaska and its islands. But on closer inspection, it has not only the same character types (men are men, and so on), but the same characters: Rhoda and Jim, one part of the extended family at the centre of the book, are surely the parents of the narrator Roy in Legend of a Suicide. This link, however, should not deter new readers: I didn’t even notice it myself until the connection was raised by someone else who had read the book.

To those wishing to cut to the chase of this novel, the executive summary is: Richard Yates in Alaska. The dominant qualities which are both fairly and unfairly assigned to Yates are present here: depictions of human weakness and domestic blitz, a delightfully sour willingness to take the reader to the very end of their rope, and a brutally honest examination of a man’s worst qualities. I say ‘a man’ because Vann (unlike Yates) does seem to write better about men, and in Caribou Island his rendering of male dissatisfaction with marriage, with domesticity, with commitment, is breathtakingly bleak. “The gradual denial of all one desired, the early death of self and possibility,” as one puts it.

At the centre of the book are Gary and Irene. “Gary was a champion at regret […] unable to work his way out of the sense that his life could have been something else, and Irene knew she was part of his great regret.” Gary and Irene have, after thirty years of marriage, come to Caribou Island in Alaska’s Skilak Lake to build a log cabin and live there doing … well, they’re not precisely sure what, but feel that they’ll know once it’s done. People trapped together (the island is scarcely habitable) is the classic engine of drama and comedy, though there’s not much comedy here. Gary is a botcher, and is no more likely to get the cabin right than to get his marriage right. He may be the root cause of Irene’s brain-splitting headache, which comes on neatly symbolic at the start of the book – surely more serious than the sinusitis she suspects – and sets the reader to yelling at the characters, “Get her to a hospital!”

Man hands on misery to man (the epigraph to Caribou Island should really be ‘This Be the Verse’), and Gary and Irene’s children are no more content than their parents (nor were Irene’s parents themselves). Their son Mark has cut his family ties, which may be a convenient way for Vann to avoid having to draw him in much detail: a shame, as his antisocial character makes him potentially one of the most interesting people in the book. His sister Rhoda is engaged to dentist Jim, who has his own commitment issues, as he embarks on an affair with the comely Monique. His arrested mentality is neatly expressed:

Here was the woman he wanted to make babies with. He couldn’t imagine her changing diapers or even being pregnant, but he could see his tall, strong, beautiful children in a portrait some day, all devoid of any type of insecurity or struggle.

All in all, with Mark, Gary and Jim representing the male, one can only sympathise with Rhoda when she asks, apropos of the cabin-building, fish-catching tasks they set themselves: “Why can’t they just be men? Why do they have to become men?”

Caribou Island is a well-rendered story, though not without weak points. A couple of characters disappear without their stories feeling complete. And Vann seems not always to trust the reader’s own ability to make connections. “Maybe you can nail each layer down to the next, Irene said,” while advising Gary on the log cabin. “With longer nails. That might bring them closer together. And she was thinking this was a kind of metaphor, that if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together…” Moments like this reminded me of this Kate Beaton cartoon. And while Irene’s headache and ‘sinus’ pain is apparently unendurable and unending, it does go unmentioned for pages at a time when Vann has some narrative drive to get through that requires her to talk to Gary about their marriage.

Balanced against this is a superb sense of constant tension or threat – landing on glaciers, the root of Irene’s pain – where the reader is forever on tenterhooks, both dreading and hoping for the worst. There are nice angles on old subjects: “Rhoda […] wondered how much of Jim she was marrying. What percentage. Ten percent of his attention, some larger percentage of his affection, ninety percent of his daily needs and errands, some percentage of his body, a small percentage of his history.” Overall, the book builds on the promise of Legend of a Suicide and marks Vann out as a writer to keep reading, for stimulation if not for cheering.


  1. Picked it up on spec when I saw it the other day – I enjoyed Legend enough to make it a definite read regardless of the consensus (which seems to be as per your own take John – muted positive).

    “Yates in Alaska” is a nice way of putting it.

  2. Given how much Yates I still have unread I’m not sure this makes my personal cut. It sounds a little obvious and perhaps like the popular cliche of literary fiction. People being vaguely and quietly unhappy. I admit some of the greatest literature ever written could be summed up that way but this doesn’t sound quite at that level.

    I was put off the Mars-Jones by its length and more importantly the fact it’s not yet complete. It sounded exciting though. Different. Reading your review of this though I have a feeling as if I’d already read this but couldn’t now remember it too clearly. It seems familiar.

    It is a great cover.

  3. Max, it’s a fair comment you make. That does seem to encapsulate a lot of contemporary fiction. Elegant ennui and discord. I fear that it’s perhaps the easiest state to capture.

  4. Elegant ennui and discord. Beautifully put Lee. Unless the writing is very good it’s a genre (and I think it is getting awfully close to being a genre) that leaves me a little cold. It seems a bit creative writing programmey (though I’ve no idea if Vann attended such a thing, quite probably not).

    As I write this John’s Top Posts sidebar is to the right. On it he has (among others) The Reluctant Fundamentalist (flawed but not cookie-cutter), Cedilla, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (just to pick the ones I know). Those aren’t by any stretch the best books John has covered but each of them tries to do something different and unique. There’s definitely a place for quiet examinations of quiet emotions and I would be saddened if nobody wrote those books. They shouldn’t be the default though. Literature is more than naturalism.

  5. Ack, no edit function. I’m not arguing something else should be the default. I was arguing more there shouldn’t be a default at all but that one seems to have emerged rather in recent years.

    Right, I must go and read that Elif Batuman article in the LRB about creative writing programmes finally.

  6. I hear the Elif Batuman book is exceptional….

    There is a certain type of writing that makes me feel ill. It’s flat-packed, not too sharp as to cut (cookies), not too rounded as to be amorphous, all boxes ticked, all darlings preserved, all metaphors flung in. You know what I mean: Jon McGregor et al (although there are many examples). ‘Literary’ writing as it has come to be referred in the pejorative – ie adherently safe and pleasantly humourless, and tending to be about samey misgivings. I think Vann is above this kind of thing to be fair, but it’s a serious issue, perhaps partly borne out of a prevalent frustration at continual failure to publish vanquishing anything that may have been interesting about a voice.

  7. I agree with you, Max and Lee.

    I have a proof of the Elif Batuman book, quite literally on my bedside table. But I don’t know if I am actually going to have time to read it.

  8. Nothing better than just finishing a book to find it on your blog! I loved Legend of a Suicide. This is not as good, but then I believe it’s an earlier novel he went back to. Interesting you think he is best at male charcaters as it’s the female characters that form much of the novel’s focus – it’s their thoughts and feelings he frequently can’t resist telling us about ( a weakness you identify). I won’t be writing about it as I’m only doing experimental novels this year (slightly strange, I know), but I think his next work will be key in revealing just how good he can be.

  9. Although I tend to feel ambivalent about short story collections, I found Legend of A Suicide to be really moving and provocative. Really loved the longer novella length story in it, so I was definitely interested to hear about Vann’s latest work. Definitely need to try this at some point, I think! Excellent review!

  10. Ah, thanks for this great review. All I’d managed to get so far about Caribou Island is that it’s “grim” or “bleak”, without adding much more… this paints a much clearer image in my mind. I haven’t gotten around to Legend of a Suicide yet and though this sounds pretty good, I’m still wondering if I shouldn’t just begin with Vann’s earlier work…

  11. Was only reading about this on the blog “inspringitisthedawn” & this appear as almost the prequal to Sukkwan, what’s your take on that.
    found you via Twitter & the Oxford classics. Will be back to peruse at leisure, thanks

  12. Yes, I agree with that interpretation, parrish, as suggested in the first substantive paragraph of my post. But I don’t think it’s important to read Legend first – though ‘Sukkwan Island’, it’s true, does surpass Caribou Island, so that’s one good reason to ignore my advice.

  13. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading Legends of a Suicide. I agree with your review particularly the points about the male characters. I thought the characterisation of Jim and Rhoda were the most well rounded and sympathetic. The scene where Monique comes to dinner and keeps dropping hints about her visit to the glacier was both tense and blackly funny as was the scene where Jim makes his inept proposal of marriage to Rhoda. The scene setting was beautifully done and I kept thinking ` so this is where Sarah Palin lives ….’ You don’t comment on the ending which I found a little unconvincing , a bit Stephen King was my husband’s comment .The bleakness of the ending perhaps chimes too neatly with the harsh backdrop of Caribou Island. I would have liked Irene to have taken the boat leaving Gary to his own miserable devices.

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