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.