How David Vann’s literature about violence is different from literature with violence

How David Vann’s literature about violence is different from literature with violence

“The Bible celebrates many killings,” writes the nameless narrator of David Vann’s fourth novel, Goat Mountain. “Born into a world of butchery, a child of butchery will embrace butchery and find it normal,” he guesses. “I was a monster even before I was made into another kind of monster.”

The narrator of Vann’s novel recounts a hunting trip in 1978 with his father, grandfather, and a family friend named Tom. When they happen upon a poacher behind the gates of their property, they pause to spy him through the scope of a .300-magnum rifle. 

The boy becomes transfixed by the magnification of the world, the clothing of the man. The enormity of the landscape—and humanity itself—shrunken down to the circumference of the gun scope’s small, ultra-magnified aperture. He fires.

“A slow exhale, careful, as I’d been taught, and I tightened slowly on the trigger. There was no thought. I’m sure of that. There was only my own nature, who I am, beyond understanding.”

The most violent passages of Goat Mountain deal not with the retrieval and disposal of the man’s body, but with the boy killing his first deer. The buck doesn’t die after the boy shoots him with his .30-.30 rifle, so his grandfather orders him to finish the kill. With the injured buck lying atop his dropped rifle, the kid resorts to his knife.

He cuts the buck’s throat, sawing at the animal’s neck, his 13-year-old strength no match for the thick musculature surrounding the spine. Page after page, Vann writes of the “heat and steam” the “blood and bone” and the liver and the heart the boy must eat, a ritual to be followed after a first-ever kill, to become “a man.” It is here, in this moment, dripping with the animal’s blood, the buck’s body open and flooding the landscape with viscera and gleaming organs, that the boy has his first glimpse of his true circumstance.

“I could feel myself retching but held it back and chewed and swallowed and bit again and thought of the dead man, thought of eating his liver and could feel the bile rising, my chest and throat convulsing, but I held it in and swallowed again and could taste the inside of every man and beast, could taste that we are made of the same things forgotten and ancient beyond reckoning from when the first creatures crawled from the soup. Taste of seawater and afterbirth in my mouth, reminder of where we came from. And why hadn’t I done this when I killed the poacher? It was the same. Everything was the same, and I should have tasted his liver and then his heart.”

In Goat Mountain’s acknowledgements, Vann writes, “This is the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family.” When Vann was 13, his father committed suicide, and in previous work, Legend Of A Suicide, Caribou Island, and Dirt, he seems to write from deep within the shadows of a family steeped in gun culture, hunting, depression, and violence. 

The author has spoken about how his writing could be an act of revenge; the novella “Sukkwan Island” effectively rewrites his father’s death by having the boy commit suicide, leaving the father to deal with the aftermath. It imagines an alternate history where his father does not pull the trigger. 

Vann, it seems, has used his writing not to explain or make sense of the violence in his world (and ours), but to place a different version of events alongside it. Maybe somewhere between the real and the imagined, a measure of understanding can be found; in that space, Vann’s literature about violence separates it from literature that is merely violent.

With every mass murder comes the question: Why? David Vann looked for answers in Last Day On Earth: A Portrait Of The NIU School Shooter, a non-fiction book that expanded on an article he wrote for Esquire. In a kind of reverse-engineered “Sukkwan Island,” Vann seems to implicate himself for the actions of Steve Kazmierczak, the shooter who killed five and injured 18 in 2008. The seed of the book came from Vann’s initial response to the shooting: It scared him, because he saw himself in Kazmierczak.

In Last Day On Earth, Vann describes the time after his father’s suicide when he inherited a substantial stockpile of guns and rifles. At around age 13 (just like Goat Mountain’s nameless protagonist), he would sneak out into the neighborhood with his father’s .300-magnum rifle. From a hidden perch, he would shoot out streetlights and look through the high-powered scope to watch his neighbors’ reactions. Sound familiar?

“And if anyone in my field of view parted their curtains to look out, I pulled back the bolt to put a new shell in the chamber, sighted in. A man’s face, centered in the crosshairs, lit from his bedside lamp, the safety off and my finger held off to the side, just above the trigger. I had done this with my father. When he spotted poachers—hunters trespassing on our land—he would have me look at them through the scope.”

Considering his latest novel, it’s shockingly familiar. If Vann reimagined his father’s death in “Sukkwan Island,” it seems his 13-year-old self in Goat Mountain actually pulls the trigger one of times he scoped a trespasser on their land. As he explains in Last Day On Earth, pitting his own troubled upbringing alongside the NIU shooter: “Why had I not ended up hurting anyone? How had I escaped, and why hadn’t he?”

As it turns out, Kazmierczak’s profile is infuriatingly familiar: his suppressed homosexuality, his affinity for horror films, his Marilyn Manson fandom (“Last Day On Earth” is the song he listened to in his car before his rampage), his fascination with other mass shootings. During his book-length investigation, Vann makes some questionable assertions (“The military trains all its troops to kill without feeling anything, and so we should fear every American who has served in the military”), though he can claim some authority when he implicates hunting culture. He grew up in that world and witnessed firsthand how it might have contributed to tearing his own family apart. 

Without spending much more than a paragraph, Vann lightly condemns America’s overwhelming love for guns. He recounts how a bill “limiting handgun purchases to one pistol per month per person” failed to pass in Illinois, even in the aftermath of the NIU massacre (with the county’s own representative voting nay). He describes his drive into town to conduct interviews, passing signs proclaiming “Guns Save Lives.” But Vann’s literary mind might make him easy prey to a particular riddle left by Kazmierczak, a passage from George Orwell’s 1984 mailed to his on-again/off-again girlfriend the day before the assault (using the name of a character from Fight Club on his return address). As if an Orwell passage matters any more than a Marilyn Manson lyric in the effort to make sense out of senselessness.

What makes Last Day On Earth even more significant is Vann’s compassion for Steve Kazmierczak as a victim of suicide. Where Vann and Kazmierczak diverge has everything to do with mental illness, misdiagnosis, medication, abandonment, and how an individual with multiple documented mental breakdowns, hospitalizations, and suicide attempts is able to purchase a 9mm Glock and a 12-gauge shotgun a week before the shooting. In the face of all that, does it really matter that the shooter read Fight Club? Or Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ? Or even that he frequently used Craigslist to solicit sexual encounters with strangers? 

Toward the end of Goat Mountain, Tom, the family friend, asks the father and the boy what they did with the poacher’s body. Restless for an answer, Tom paces, holding his rifle. (Everyone in Goat Mountain is almost always holding a gun, even when asleep.) 

“He was always like this, guarding nothing, waiting for something but wholly unprepared, spooked from the moment I first pulled that trigger and spooked still, believing maybe everything was unreal and nothing had happened. He was like most people in that way. Continuing on, day to day and year to year, outraged and doing nothing.”

David Vann wrote Legend Of A Suicide to find out what might have happened if his father had never pulled the trigger on that particular day. He wroteSukkwan Island” to find out what might have happened had he committed suicide and left his father to deal with it. He wrote Last Day On Earth to find out why he didn’t end up like someone who was also drawn toward a senseless, irreversible act. Goat Mountain, it seems, was written to find out what might have happened if he had pulled the trigger on that poacher. 

Vann eventually sold all of the guns he inherited from his father. He has spent the bulk of his life using his gift for writing as a tool to understand himself—maybe even to prevent himself from becoming the person he fears the most. Maybe he was outraged and acted on that rage, which makes him nothing like most people. Then again, maybe he is nothing like his father, and inevitability is fiction, too. 

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