Undersupplied and woefully optimistic, a middle-aged couple courts disaster through the course of an Alaskan fall in pursuit of a husband’s dream house. David Vann’s first novel, Caribou Island (following his short-story collection Legend Of A Suicide) sets its adventurers out to sea while their children struggle to find anything solid to anchor to on shore.
For Gary, who originally arrived in Alaska as an idealistic Ph.D. student reciting “The Seafarer” to the waves, the cabin he plans to build on a remote island represents a commitment to a simpler way of life, without the distractions of his commercial fishing job and the demands of grown children Rhoda and Mark. For his wife Irene, the cabin is the last in a series of failed projects Gary dragged her into; facing the punishment of the isolated life, she develops strange headaches and pains as she and Gary race to build the cabin ahead of the season’s first snow. Meanwhile, Rhoda struggles with the wavering attentions of her boyfriend Jim, and Mark follows Gary into trade fishing, but reserves his energy for his marijuana crop.
Between the weather and the chilling opening, in which Irene describes the childhood shock of finding her mother’s hanging body, Caribou Island starts bleak and gets worse. Initially united in their work in spite of reservations, Gary and Irene quickly fall out over the details of their new remote life, with each mishap represented to Gary as another way his wife has let him down. Vann’s scenes of snowbound Alaska—momentarily placid before the menace—complement the turmoil indoors as Irene and her children stoke their animosity to keep themselves warm ’til spring. As Irene and Gary’s outing progresses from a foolish lark to actively dangerous, their relatives ashore find their own footing not so secure; economic peril seems as inevitable as the next storm.
Caribou Island deepens the misery around its unlucky couple instead of surrendering to the monotony of an arc that even the tourists out fishing for the day see approaching. Not all its depictions of human desperation can stand on their own, but the resultant landscape cleaves stubbornly to its own hopelessness. Even all that open space can still be claustrophobic.