Review: Goat Mountain by David Vann

9th September 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper Books in exchange for an honest review.

A man recalls his 11th year in 1978, the year in which he makes his first kill. Family tradition has his father, his grandfather, and his father’s best friend Tom setting out across their land – Goat Mountain. The terrain is rough, but these men are rougher, as is evidenced when they set out for the three-day trip, spotting a poacher and sighting him in the scopes of their guns. When the boy takes his turn, coolly and without thought, he pulls the trigger.

What you want to read, what you want to see is the boy’s remorse. You want to understand that it was a mistake, that it didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened on purpose. But what the boy’s father, grandfather, and Tom see is a boy so little affected by the act that he readies himself to go on with the hunt immediately. Appalled, the three grown men are forced to deal with the aftermath and the effects of the death and the boy’s nonchalance, each wanting reparation but unable to do what it takes to make that happen.

It is evident that a man is remembering these events in moments when he examines what the men must have thought and ties his own actions to Biblical stories, yet the purpose of the recollection isn’t at all evident. Grim and horrific at times as he describes the dead man’s body and the manner of its disposal as well as his later kill – a buck, this time – the book waxes on about the human condition, sometimes eloquently; other times in excess:

The great flood. Think of how many lost. Drowned like rats, no burials, no apologies, no reparations….Imagine that wall of water coming over a hill, the sheep scattering, and you feel the cold breath of it, a thrill in that dry heat, the sudden change, and the sun is underwater, pale shafts of light reaching through the blue, and that can only be beautiful, the moments right before annihilation can never be anything less than the very best moments, held suspended.

The narrator dissects the Bible but in such a way as to divorce God from it, to explain our natures differently:

The Bible has nothing to do with god. The Bible is an account of our waking up, an atavistically dreamed recovery of how we first learned shame in the garden and first considered ourselves different from animals, and Cain was the first to discover that part of us will never wake up.

And in this exploration, he also examines family ties between him, his father, and his grandfather, and his inability to know them, especially during the hunt. At times, they understand one another’s intentions or gestures without at all understanding the person.

The book is disturbing, and I cannot say it was a pleasure to read, though there were moments of beautiful writing. However, for those who enjoy Cormac McCarthy or, going back further, Frank Norris or Stephen Crane, I’d recommend it. The depiction of the land and of those tied to it is stark and brutal but with good reason.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

  • Andi

    I would have to be in just the right mood for this one, I think. Great review, Jenn!

    • Most definitely. I’m glad I picked it up without knowing too much; otherwise, I likely never would have. Sort of reminded me a bit of a book I loved a few years ago – A Single Shot. That one was still pretty bleak, but there was something more to it, I felt.

      But Vann can definitely write. No doubt about it.


  • Ti Reed

    Vann’s writing is always beautiful but the subjects are always dark.

    • This was my first Vann, but that’s definitely what I’d heard.

  • Momofnine

    Stumbled across your blog as I was looking for Annie Sloan projects. I really enjoyed reading your book review and I am going to find your ASCP post! Thank you.

    • I’m so glad you stopped by! Thanks for reading, and good luck if you decide to use chalk paint. 🙂

  • After all the buzz with this one I’m curious but I’m also leaning on the “don’t read it” side. I’m glad you mentioned McCarthy though–the beginning of your description made me think of his books and I consider him a favorite author even if his books are sometimes very difficult to read. Great post!

    • I know a lot of people who feel that way about McCarthy. To be honest, I don’t feel I’ve ever given him a fair shot and need to…

  • Jennifer

    What an intriguing review – it sounds both brutal and compelling – a read for when one is in a more serious or philosophical mood perhaps, and worth a look even just for the writing.

    • That’s actually a great way of putting it – brutal and compelling. And most definitely worth it, though there were moments it was tough to read.