I’m going to start by being frank - Dirt is a very difficult book to read. It is dark, twisted and agonising, yet impossibly compelling. David Vann has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and that seems a fair judgement: just like in McCarthy’s novels, in Dirt you don’t want to keep going but you can’t put the book down. I felt like I was unable to read it, yet unable to stop. I would read 30-50 pages in a session but wanted to stop after each chapter yet somehow felt unable. I would want the relief from stopping, but I also didn’t want to prolong the agony any longer. Not that Dirt is badly written or formed; the agony comes entirely from the pain in the characters and their lives.
Dirt is a story about family in a particularly Lear-ish tradition. Galen, the central character, lives with his mother on a rural property in desert-like conditions. His grandmother is in a nearby care home suffering from dementia. When Galen’s aunty and cousin come to visit his Grandmother, it becomes a family escape to their cabin. Which all sounds normal enough – even the resulting feud about money and ownership – but Galen’s mothers’ control over the family fortune, which results in an ownership over the entire family, pushes them all to breaking point. What starts as an argument descends into a complete breakdown of both family but also of individuals, spiralling into an incredibly intense stand-off and resolution.
I saw David Vann speak at the 2012 Melbourne Writers’ Festival where he was publicising the newly released Dirt. (You can read Estelle Tang’s wonderful interview with David Vann in Kill Your Darlings Journal here. The discussion of how his own difficult family life lead to the darkness of his books intrigued me. After finding a second hand copy of Dirt I thought this as a good a place as any to start. Vann has published several incredibly dark and gruesome stories based on his life, but Dirt is the first novel where he has completely drawn from fiction. This in no way stops the pain and violence that Vann addresses in his other works, such as Legend of a Suicide or Caribou Island. In fact knowing that this was a work of fiction made Dirt all the more difficult for me to comprehend. The imagination, the intelligence and the beauty underneath the violence, oppression and anger make this an incredible novel. However, Dirt was honestly one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read.
Sometimes food and rituals bind families together. There’s a rather touching scene in Dirt where Galen’s grandmother, despite being a fraction of herself, promises to cook the family her famous chicken stew with dumplings. Despite the family tearing apart they sit down together and enjoy the nostalgic meal. I live in a different state to my own family, so sometimes cooking meals that we have shared are a perfect way to combat homesickness. But the thing about living in a big city is that there are always a lot of people in the same position. You may never meet your friends’ parents or families but you get an insight into them through rituals, recipes and stories. My lovely friend Lexi recently cooked this version of her Dad’s chicken stew at her house. We were greeted by its incredible fragrance and homeliness as we walked in the door (as well as her beautiful dog Frank!) – what better way to welcome people into your home. Chicken thighs are slowly cooked amongst heady cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and coriander, with tarragon, capers and preserved lemons providing tartness and contrast. Served here with brown rice, it was a chance to take advantage of an unseasonably cool day, a change having recently broken the oppressive heat. Lexi kindly passed this recipe on to me, transcribing it from her Dad’s notes, so it’s not a recipe I will link to here. But I think we all have recipes like this tucked away in notebooks, stashed into cookbooks, or floating around in kitchen drawers.
I talk a lot about seeing authors at writers’ festivals and talks. This is for two reasons: firstly – disclaimer – I work on a lot of them. But secondly, well, I’m a massive nerd. I love understanding an author’s motivations, pulling apart themes of novels in inquisitive interviews, and just sitting amongst fellow book lovers. Few things make me happier than seeing writers’ festival audiences scribbling in notebooks during sessions. Just after last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival The Lifted Brow’s Ellena Savage posted this wonderful article ‘What Even Is A Writers’ Festival’ as a celebration of all their beauty. It also reemphasises my belief that they’re the best place for making new friends, either in your home city or away.