Believe It or Not

David Vann's Dirt digs down to discover what happens when people stop being polite.

David Vann is pretty sure you won’t believe him. His latest novel, Dirt, was written in just five and a half months, at a deliberate pace of two pages per day. An almost religious writing experience, this “grueling repetitive practice” produced a tightly paced novel focusing on one family’s extreme relationships. Vann, who reads from the novel on Tuesday, May 1, at Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley), submitted the book to his publishers and they printed it almost without edits. If he were a baseball player, that would be knocking it out of the park.

Structured like a Greek tragedy, Dirt spans only ten days and shifts between two main locations: an old orchard homestead wasting away between encroaching subdivisions, its rows of walnut trees heavy and stifling in the Sacramento Delta heat; and the Sierra cabin where protagonist Galen’s family vacations. In many ways, it is the typical American family. Galen’s mother and aunt fight constantly over the family’s fortune while their mother slips in and out of lucidity; Galen and his first cousin Jennifer dare each other to take their malevolent flirting to the next level; and the entire family’s interactions are replete with hatred, anger, and a hint of violence. “Greek tragedy takes a relationship, defined space, and tries to break those characters to find out who they are,” Vann said. “The hope is that as we watch them break we’ll find out something about ourselves, that they’ll speak to more than individuals; they’ll speak to the human experience. It’s up to the readers, but all I can do as a writer is follow moment by moment.”

As Vann wrote without a fixed story or plan, each page was as much a revelation to him as it is to readers. Dirt borrowed from memories of his own familial landscape, and after two previous books, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide, set in frigid Alaskan climates, Vann felt like this was getting him closer to the inferno. “The external landscape is a way to describe the internal of the character,” he explained. “Since my writing is unconscious … it relies on the landscape suggesting, transforming, shifting, and becoming something other than literal.” As the pages accumulated, the landscape “kept becoming crazy,” sending Galen and company into a heated madness. “That’s what interests me, getting as close as possible to these characters and not letting them escape.”

Serving as comic relief, like a modern Shakespearean fool, is Galen’s very 1980s, very Californian, youthful obsession with all things New Age, from reading Siddhartha and The Prophet to attempting etheric surgery and fire-walking to imagining that he can walk across water, arms out and eyes closed. “I found it a very funny book to write,” Vann said. “I was chuckling every day as I wrote it.” But as the family members spend more time together, they start unraveling in ways that are anything but enjoyable, leading to the denouement in the walnut orchard.

To Vann, “the book is really about how philosophy can lead to brutality,” which gives you a hint of how things turn out. The author achieved catharsis when he reached the end: Here’s to hoping you will, too. 7 p.m., free. 510-849-2087 or


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