For this third fictional outing, the much acclaimed American author David Vann has abandoned his home of Alaska as a backdrop, preferring instead the sweltering heat of the California desert. But nature still looms large here, so instead of the elemental power of the Alaskan wilderness, Dirt is played out in an oppressive, crushing, claustrophobic wasteland, a setting that neatly mirrors the central relationship on which it centres.
Family dysfunction has always been at the heart of Vann's writing, and Dirt feels like an excruciating end-point to that obsession. We are in the company of Galen, an intense, obsessive 22-year-old drifting through life, dabbling in wishy-washy New Age philosophy, and still living at home with his mother. The house that the two occupy is paid for from a trust fund provided by Galen's grandmother, a woman suffering the early signs of dementia and recently shunted off to a retirement home.
At the opening of Dirt, the relationship between Galen and his mother is clearly toxic, yet there is a strangely symbiotic nature to it. They have grown to depend on their hatred of each other; it's the only thing that seems to give either of them purpose or focus. When Galen's abusive aunt and sexually predatory teenage cousin Jennifer pay a visit – ostensibly to get their hands on some of Galen's grandmother's money – the scene is set for the mother of all family ding-dongs. And so it transpires.
We are inside Galen's head for all of Dirt, and it's a deeply unpleasant yet compelling place to be. Vann expertly builds the pressure in the first half of the novel, so that what starts off as Galen's apathetic ennui quickly transforms itself under duress into something much more dangerous and poisonous. After a seemingly inevitable flashpoint event, the story begins an inexorable and tragic descent to a truly mind-boggling conclusion.
As with the brutal Alaskan background of his first two novels, the searing, penetrating heat of the California desert is brilliantly evoked here, and even a brief sojourn to a cabin in the Sierras only serves to highlight, upon the family's return, just how destructive the relentless power of the sun is.
While every relationship in this book is damaged in its own special way, the story always returns to Galen's co-dependent and mutually abusive relationship with his mother. Vann takes it to remarkable extremes, and the last hundred pages of Dirt are as audacious and uncompromising a piece of writing as I've read in a long time.
Vann is a brave writer, daring to write about and depict things that most other authors would baulk at, but that's what makes him so good – that unflinching eye for the darkness you could potentially find in any of us, given the wrong chain of events. If you want to feel good about the human condition, go elsewhere. If you want the naked, awful truth, then dive in.