When Adak-born David Vann returned to Alaska a few years back for a reading and a talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I offered to take him or a bike ride up Powerline Pass, high above the city. I owned two mountain bikes and, being the host, lent Vann my good bike. We climbed up the pass, stopping and chatting about writing and life along the way. Then, when we turned to ride back down the valley, Vann was off like a shot. I pedaled feverishly at first to keep up, at the risk of a bad wreck on the rocks. But at some point during the harrowing descent I decided Vann was pretty much crazy and gave up the pursuit.
Vann's new book, "Goat Mountain," opens just like he took off on me that day, with blazing speed and a shot of its own. A single devastating rifle shot. Behind the trigger is an 11-year-old boy on a deer hunting trip with his father, grandfather and old family friend. What starts out as an annual camping trip on some family land in the arid mountains of northern California turns, in short order, as dark and nightmarish as anything I've read in recent memory.
The boy, now grown, narrates the story and recounts the details of the hunt and the landscape in raw and vivid imagery that forces the reader into the back of the old pickup truck with the boy as the party heads out to their camp. The men discover someone they believe to be a poacher on the property. The adults all look at the stranger through their rifle scopes and when the father hands his son the loaded rifle, the boy pulls the trigger.
What ensues is a complicated and violent struggle of power, emotion and twisted ethics between the three adults of the party as they try to decide whether to turn the boy in to authorities or hide the body.
As someone who has hunted and held a gun for as long as I can remember, I can't say I've ever read a book that has attempted to capture the complicated, yet simplistic mindset of a kill shot before this one. Vann does it here with brilliance. It's hard to look away.
For myself, this is an awful turning of the mirror upon the family tradition of hunting and fathers toughening their sons to become fierce out in the wilderness. The young boys will learn how to become either a hunter or killer. The fine lines of distinction between the two are perhaps separated by mere crosshairs. In Alaska we have plenty our own stories of hunts gone bad and of hunters who haven't returned from hunting trips. Not because of the animals or the weather, but because of a brother, friend or stranger's rifle.
Hunting for most of us is an act of tradition, culture, camaraderie and fellowship. But what Vann suggests in "Goat Mountain" is something much more sinister. A man who will teach his boy to kill will himself be willing to kill, just as the father who taught him was willing to kill. The trait is passed from generation to generation like language. The man telling the story suggests: "When we kill, all that is orients itself to us," and this violent nature comes from our very genesis. "Cain is how we all began," he says.
"Goat Mountain," like the story of Cain and Abel, is a story absent of women and of anything resembling love. The novel is at once both beautiful and brutal. Vann has crafted a gripping masterpiece that captures the complexity of a world where tradition and routine substitute for love, where nurture is replaced by nature and killing second-nature. This is a powerful coming-of-age story that throws you in the back of the pickup on an impassable road for a ride you can't get off and to a destination you'd never imagine, but can't stop thinking about.
Despite what I thought that day on the trail as Vann tore down the mountain in front of me, he's not crazy. At the trail head he informed me the brakes on the bike I'd lent him didn't work. Since that time, it appears that Vann -- whose first novel, "Legend of a Suicide," became an international success and whose recent book "Dirt" won this year's $50,000 St. Francis College (New York) Literary Prize -- has no brakes on his literary career either. With "Goat Mountain" he continues blazing down the trail as one of our next great American writers.
Don Rearden is the author of the award-winning novel, "The Raven's Gift." Contact him at www.donrearden.com
By DON REARDEN
Daily News correspondent