By David Vann
HarperCollins Publishers ($25.99, 293 pp.)
September means early winter on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. It is not a good time to start building a small log cabin on Skilak Lake’s largest island…especially for Gary and Irene who know nothing about building anything and whose thirty year marriage is washing up on the rocks. David Vann’s first novel, “Caribou Island,” is the story of a family unraveling in the very heart of Alaska’s dramatic topography and bad weather. It begins with Irene’s memory of her mother’s suicide and ends with an equally gruesome act of hopelessness and despondency.
This is Hemingway territory – the territory of Nick Adams, Francis Macomber, and old man Santiago – where men are taciturn in their battles with fish and game and nature…and unpredictable in their relationships with women. Vann writes with similar short chapters, spare dialogue, and omnipresent weather.
It’s not enough that Gary and Irene don’t even talk in the quiet of their house, but while stacking logs for their island cabin’s walls in the first fall storm, they are endlessly silent as they endure “a thirty-degree drop in temperature, the sky gone dark, a malevolence…whitecaps, breaking waves, cresting six feet high, pounding the shore. The wind in blasts, compressed, colder and colder, born in the icefield, accelerated in the wind tunnel over Skilak Glacier, funneled by mountains.” Irene doesn’t want to live on an island alone with Gary in an unheated, unplumbed log cabin anyway, but this weather confirms her reluctance.
It wasn’t always this way. “Gary had seemed so promising…They played guitars, sitting cross-legged, staring into each other’s eyes, singing ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ or ‘Suzanne.’ She felt tied to him, felt wanted, felt like she belonged.” He brought them to Alaska to find “the imagined village, the return to an idyllic time when he could have a role, a set task, as blacksmith or baker or singer of a people’s story.”
What they found instead were villages where “one house would have a gas pump down on a pier, and maybe a faded 76 sign in one of the windows. Another would be an engine repair place. Summer cabins and obvious hippie plantations, with stray animals and spare parts hanging around the yard.”
The Grim Reality of Alaska
Alaska was not a fantasy world of gorgeous lakes and mountains, but the grim reality of loneliness, seasonal fishing on the boats, part-time cannery jobs, and their two grown children – Mark, consistently stoned with his girlfriend, and Rhoda, pining to marry a dentist with a big fancy house. “Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn’t cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.”
At its heart “Caribou Island” is a story about marriage. The majesty and demanding isolation of the geography only serve to strip Gary and Irene’s relationship to its core. For Gary their building a rustic cabin together by hand is a way to recover his dream of self-sufficiency and domestic simplicity with Irene. “If they could take all their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years ago to fit closer together, maybe they’d have a sense of something solid.”
A Bare Bones Marriage
For Irene the numbing toil on the island only shows their marriage to be “something fleeting and changing, important and also nothing. You could rely on it for years, just assume it was there, but then if you looked for it, needed it, tried to find some substance to it, something to grab on to, your hands closed on air.” Her hopeless fatalism culminates in an emotional plea to her daughter to dump the rich dentist and get out of Alaska while she can. They talk: “Just listen. If you don’t wake up, you’ll be alone like this too. Your life spent, and nothing left. And no one will understand you. Rhoda pushed away. What the fuck, Mom. That’s all I have to offer you. Just the truth. You’re scaring me, Mom. Well maybe you’re starting to understand.”
Without the romantic hippie heritage of her parents, Rhoda takes a more practical approach to marriage. She is tired of her poorly paying job assisting the local vet. She wants comfort, a big house, a happy wedding in Hawaii. Despite her mother’s warning, she calculates the tradeoffs and “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. She wondered what she was signing up for. Half of his money. She didn’t like to think of it that way. They were supposed to be joining their lives together.”
If you are looking for some kind of frontier romanticism about life in Alaska, Vann’s novel is not the place to find it. To be sure, there are scenes reflecting the sheer immensity of the land and the sea, the romance of fishing and its “mystery…wondering what was down there, what was in that net,” and the spectacular sunshine reflecting off its glaciers – but Vann has deeper things to explore. Instead, his lean prose and broken characters take us to a place where who we are and how we treat each other are far more important questions than where we are. In that sense “Caribou Island” is real literature, not some Disney “Call of the Wild” movie for kids.