Will Byrnes's Reviews > Goat Mountain

Goat Mountain by David Vann
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it was amazing
bookshelves: books-of-the-year-2013, interview-attached, literary-fiction, fiction

This review has also been cross-posted on my blog. Images tend to disappear on GR. They are all present there. The book was released on Tuesday, September 10, 2013. The trade paperback was released on October 14, 2014.

Drama is a description of what is bad inside of us and the end point of that is hell, a description of a hellish landscape.
This is what David Vann had to say in an interview with GR pal Lou Pendergast. (A link to the full interview is in the LINKS section at the bottom of this review) It will come as no shock then that in his latest novel he presents us with a hellscape, and we see that some of the bad is not content to remain cooped up. In fact David Vann's Goat Mountain is like Deliverance (without the sex) mated with The Golden Bough, as directed by Terence Malick.

David Vann

Northern California. Rural. 1978. On several acres owned by their family for many years. A grandfather, father and eleven-year-old boy, accompanied by the father's friend, Tom (his is the only name we learn), have come for an annual deer hunt. This is to be the boy's first chance to kill a buck. They spot a poacher on a hill. Sight him through their scopes. Encouraged to look through the scope of dad's rifle, the boy takes a careful sighting, then squeezes the trigger, instantly killing the unsuspecting man. What are the rules? Should the boy be turned in to the authorities? Should he himself be killed as an unfeeling abomination? Should the deed be covered up? Do they just walk away? Contending with this issue is the motive force in the story. But it is not the only thing going on here.
An idea is the worst thing that could happen to a writer, and as I’ve written these other books I’ve tried actually to not to know where I’m going. I think my ideas are very small and close the story off, instead I try to just focus on the landscape and the character with the problem and just find out what happens.
And yet some ideas manage to find their way in to this work. It is a good thing he eschewed this advice in favor of a bit of wisdom he received from a very accomplished writer.
I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said that every good story is at least two stories. And to me that’s the one unbreakable rule in writing – the only one. That if you just have an account of something, and it’s just an account – like in most people’s journals or blogs or whatever – it’s just sh*t. Like it will never work. I can’t think of a single good work ever that was just one thing – that was just an account of something. What we read for as readers is that second story – the subtext – and the interest of what story will come out from behind the other one. And so you can’t break that rule, as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen it done.
So what else is in here beyond the dramatic tension of a family trying to figure out what to do with their young murderer?
All of my books are about religion and our need for religion...I started as a religious studies major actually. One thing that links all of my works...is how philosophy can lead to brutality
Religion it is, but not just religion, human nature. Our narrator ponders whether killing is in our DNA.
We think of Cain as the one who killed his brother, but who else was around to kill? They were the first two born. Cain killed what was available. The story has nothing to do with brothers.
And later:
What we wanted was to run like this, to chase our prey. That was the point. What made us run was the joy and promise of killing.
The story is told mostly as an internal monologue by the boy, as both child and man. While we encounter him as an eleven year old boy, his story is related to us by the adult he will become. Positing a guess that the narrator is speaking from 2012, that makes the narrator 45 or so, just about the author's age. And yes, Vann is familiar with hunting. I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel. I killed my first deer when I was eleven and I started missing them after that.

Religion here considers the pre-historical
The first thing to distinguish man…there’s not much we can do that is older and more human than sitting at a fire. ..It’s only in fire or water that we can find a corollary to felt mystery, a face to who we might be. But fire is the core immediate. In fire we never feel alone. Fire is our first god.
In the atavistic is there relief from civilization? Vann offers a contemplation of human nature, through the eyes of a monster who feels more connection with ancient hunter-gatherers than he does with any living human.
I wish now I could have slept under hides. I wish now I could have gone all the way back, because if we can go far enough back, we cannot be held accountable.
Is the unfeeling boy really a monster, merely immature, or the core of what it is to be human?
David Vann and his father in Alaska
This image of Vann and his father was taken from The Guardian

The bible references here lean toward the Old Testament, and they are abundant. For those who, like me, enjoy trawling for literary references it might be wise to heed Chief Brody's advice to Quint, "you're gonna need a bigger boat." Cain comes in for frequent mention. I noted his name nine times, but there may be more. There is a host of further biblical references, including one in which the boy endures his own Calvary-like hike. Edenic references abound. When we read I slithered my way up that steep canyon, my belly in the dirt, and I refused to be left behind, we might be reminded of Genesis 3:14:
Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
There is a look at Jesus as being guilty of muddying the lines between life and death, the Ten Commandments as being directed against inherent human instinct, and the Eucharist as a way of remaining connected with our bestial nature. Consideration is given to the existence of the devil, and whether we need for there to be some dark agent in charge, anything in charge, because the existential chaos of being is beyond our ability to cope. What are the rules? Who made them and why? And what happens, what should happen, when we break them? There are also parts that reminded me of Dante's Inferno, as the boy consumes some particularly sulphurous water early on and the group has to pass through a daunting metal gate to enter the place in which the story takes place, among other clues.

This is a book that reaches a grasping claw into your stomach and shakes your guts around before yanking them out. Definitely not a book for those who are uncomfortable with the dark, the violent or the sad. But even with all the brimstone challenging your nostrils, you cannot help but detect the aroma of power and substance in Vann's harsh new novel. Once you calm down from the brutality of the story you will long consider the subjects it raises.


David Vann very graciously took some time during a whirlwind book tour to answer some questions about Goat Mountain

W - There is a lot in Goat Mountain about the primitive, atavistic drives in human nature. When the boy thinks "Some part in me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end" was he expressing some primitive element within the human character, his personal pathology or something else?
I think it’s both. The book shows a descent that one particular mind takes (as in my novel Dirt, also, and my nonfiction book about a school shooting, Last Day On Earth) but I’m also trying to find shadows of something human and not just peculiar to an individual.
W - How much of what the boy considers, particularly as it relates to a compulsion to kill, reflects your view of human nature (Do you think we are killers by nature?) or was the boy making excuses for his aberrant urges?
I honestly can’t answer any of the big questions about human nature or even individuals. I wrote about my father’s suicide for ten years and yet his final moment still remains mysterious to me. With the school shooter, also, I could put together a narrative that made his final act possible but not inevitable. At the last moment, he and my father could have chosen differently. So I don’t think we’re determined. I think we can kill or not kill, and that many factors push us toward or away. In my fiction, everything is limited to a character’s view always, but I also have basically had or can imagine having all the thoughts and feelings of all my characters, in that they feel possible and believable to me.
W - In an interview you said your books are about "how philosophy can lead to brutality." But the boy in Goat Mountain appears to have the brutality in him inherently. Can it be that brutality leads to philosophy?
That quote was specifically about Dirt, about the dangers of the New Age movement. But it’s an interesting question, whether brutality is so abhorrent it always has to be covered in philosophy in order for the perpetrators to be able to go on telling the story of themselves. You’re right that the narrator thinks he had an inherent brutality as a boy, or perhaps it was the culture he grew up in (he says children will find whatever they’re born into natural). He’s disturbed by the fact that he didn’t feel bad after first killing, but then this changes with the buck and after that he no longer wants to kill, and he becomes fully human when he kills without wanting to. That’s what I find really disturbing about human killing, when it’s divorced from instinct and becomes abstract and we kill for philosophy or religion or politics or calculated risk.
W - There are several references to a time before god. For example "grandfather did not come from god. I’m sure of that. He came from something older" and "The darkness a great muscle tightening, filled with blood, a living thing already before god came to do his work" and "The act of killing might even be the act that creates god." The contemporary view of the Hebrew and Christian god is that there was no existence prior. If the boy believes in god how could he believe that there was a time before god?
There has to have been a time before god, because we made him, and it was quite a while before we came up with the idea of making gods. And antimatter is interesting as a concept, because it makes possible the existence of something before anything, the existence of what pulls existence into being. That’s what the grandfather in the book becomes, the thing that makes matter possible. That’s the closest I can imagine to god. Putting a face on god is as stupid as imagining aliens with a head and two arms and two legs. Our images of god are all simplistic like that, too dumb to be able to believe now. I began as a religious studies major and moved on to fiction, which investigates mystery more honestly.
W - Did you have Dante's Inferno in mind while writing Goat Mountain? If so, were the obstructions the four face getting into their land an echo of the challenges Dante and Virgil face entering the Inferno?
D - I have always wanted to write an inferno, since it’s the natural goal or end of tragedy, as you’ve quoted from me before, and I like Dante’s depiction and also the Venerable Bede’s and Blake’s and McCarthy’s, and there are always obstructions to entering and time it takes to recognize. The inferno is an externalization of a felt landscape within, the shape of our human badness, and the characters have to be put under pressure for a while before they can start to see a mirroring in the landscape. So the book becomes increasingly hellish, as Dirt did. It’s really only in the final section of the novel, when they reach the burn (an area that had had a fire recently), that the architecture of their hell is more fully realized. So they don’t enter gates really but are steadily building.
W - If Goat Mountain completes a holy trinity for you, will you be continuing with religion as a major focus in your next book? What is your next project?
My next novel, which is finished, is titled Bright Air Black and is the story of Medea, set 3,250 years ago, trying to stay close to the archaeological record. It attempts to be a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of her as a destroyer of kings who wants a world not ruled by men. I’ve been wanting to write something about her for 25 years, and I’m fascinated by the time period because it’s the time the Greeks imagine as the beginning and therefore can be considered the beginning of western culture and literature, but it’s actually the end of an older world, the fall of the bronze age and Hittite empire and decline of the Egyptians. Medea worships Hecate and also Nute, an Egyptian goddess, so there’s a continuity with focus on gods and landscape. But Goat Mountain is the end of my books that have family stories and places in the background.
W - Are there any plans afoot for films to be made of any of your books?
I’ve co-written the screenplay for Caribou Island with two-time academy award-winning director Bill Guttentag, and we’re trying now to raise funding for the film. And the French producers Haut Et Court (producers of Coco Avant Chanel and The Class) and French-Canadian director Daniel Grau will be making a film from Sukkwan Island, the novella in Legend of a Suicide.
W - You said in an interview with the Australian Writers Centre:
...what I teach my students is how to read, how to be better readers, and the importance of studying language and literature. And, I use a linguistics approach for talking about style, very specifically talking about what individual sentences do, writing a grammar for a text.
Have you ever considered putting your teaching ideas into a book?
I have thought about that, because I can’t find a textbook that does what I’d want it to do, but I’m focused for now on writing novels.
W - What books have you read in the last year that you would recommend?
I’ve been reading a lot of books, about a book per week, and my favorite this year was John L’Heureux’s new novel The Medici Boy. A great portrait of an artist, an historical thriller, and a depiction of the persecution of gay men in 15th century Florence, it’s a rich masterpiece that I recommend to everyone.
W - What do you do for fun?
Right now I’m on a six-week residency in Amsterdam with the Dutch Lit Foundation, and my wife and I are going to music and museums and restaurants and walking all around the city. Amsterdam is wonderful. We live half the year in New Zealand, where I do watersports almost every day (waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking) or mountain-biking or hiking. And we sail on the Turkish coast each summer. I also play congas and a bit of guitar and I like tequilas and rums.

Thanks, David, for your time and fascinating insights.

============================EXTRA STUFF

Vann's earlier novel, Caribou Island was my favorite book of 2011. And his 2008 Legend of a Suicide is compelling reading as well.

Lou Pendergrast's interview with DV
(Source for "All my books are about religion" quote)

The author's website - among other things there is a large list of interviews

And his GR page

The Family History Is Grim, but He's Plotted a New Course - NY Times article on Vann from 2011
(Source for "an idea is the worst thing... quote)

University of Gloucestershire Creative Writing Blog interview with DV from October 10, 2011
(Source for Vann's mention of Grace Paley)

The White Review with Melissa Cox (online only)
(Source of the "I didn't feel what I was supposed to feel" quote)

Vann reading from Goat Mountain and a bit from his following novel, Aquarium
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Reading Progress

April 19, 2013 – Shelved
April 24, 2013 – Started Reading
May 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 10, 2013 – Shelved as: books-of-the-year-2013
August 28, 2013 – Shelved as: interview-attached
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
May 5, 2019 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-46 of 46 (46 new)

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message 1: by Janine (new) - added it

Janine I'm envious!

Will Byrnes I am about 50 pps in and it is powerful and dark, very dark. California this time, not Alaska.

message 3: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Hall Read Carbou Island and bought "Legend" but have not yet read. Like his darker themes. How does this one compare?

message 4: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus If he intended to make a case FOR religion, he sounds more like he succeeded in proving how vile and evil it is.

message 5: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Will, awesome review.
This seems as tough and haunting as irrevocably appealing.
Must also contain amazing imagery if you compare it with Malick's directing style...

Jill So Vann has a new one? Great review, Will. I'm wishlisting it, of course.

message 7: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Wonderful review.

I admired all your Biblical siftings, and particularly enjoyed the link with Genesis 3:14....

message 8: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Will, you always deliver. Beautiful...

message 9: by Will (last edited May 10, 2013 08:50AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Lisa wrote: "Read Carbou Island and bought "Legend" but have not yet read. Like his darker themes. How does this one compare?"
Legend is a core novella and several different view of suicide. Caribou, Dirt and Goat Mountain are proper novels, all concerned with elements of religion and none of them exactly cheery. This one is up there in Caribou territory.

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Richard wrote: "If he intended to make a case FOR religion, he sounds more like he succeeded in proving how vile and evil it is."
He is not making a case for religion here, but looking at it.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Dolors wrote: "Will, awesome review.
This seems as tough and haunting as irrevocably appealing.
Must also contain amazing imagery if you compare it with Malick's directing style..."

It is amazing, and the Malick reference was because I was reminded of the internal monologue in the middle of the horror of war in The Thin Red Line, a contemplation of larger subjects.

message 12: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I grew up in a hunting culture. I did enough of it to know I didn't enjoy doing it. At fourteen I killed my first deer and ever since then I've been missing them too. Great review as always Mr. Will.

message 13: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm Will wrote: "In fact David Vann's Goat Mountain is like Deliverance (without the sex) mated with The Golden Bough, as directed by Terence Malick."

That line certainly got my attention.

message 14: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Wow, I can't figure ouit if I should absolutely read this quite urgently or avoid it like the plague forever... which must, I supppose indicate a course somewhere inbetween.

But splendid review, that was quite gripping stuff to read!

message 15: by Steve (new)

Steve That was a powerhouse review, Will. Sounds like it gets at such good fundamental questions about violence. Did the book change your view to any extent?

message 16: by David (new)

David Vann Thank you, Will, for such a thoughtful review of Goat Mountain. I'm grateful. This is my best book, the one I'm really hoping people will read. Best, David

message 17: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Tremendous review, Will. Adding this as a TBR on your strong recommendation.

Loved the Grace Paley reference, thanks for including that in this piece. She is dead-on.

message 18: by Harry (new) - added it

Harry Will, excellent review as always. Although I'm more of a mystery genre reader, I do enjoy this sort of story. I am reminded of a coming of age story I just finished Ordinary Grace which was powerful and dealt with death though it sounds like this is slightly darker. I've marked it TBR

message 19: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Smith Great review .... just added it to my list! This sounds dark and murky with lots to chew on ... I like books that make you mull on them.

message 20: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Has anybody read the Andre Dubus short story "A Father's Story"? A similar dilemma, maybe. Your review made me remember that, Will.

message 21: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Jan wrote: "Has anybody read the Andre Dubus short story "A Father's Story"?

Yes! Twice this year, in different Dubus collections. A beautiful story - and available for free for those yet to read it here.

message 22: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Brian replied, "Yes! Twice this year, in different Dubus collections...."

Thanks--I wanted to post that but couldn't come up with it. I have it in a book called God: Stories, that I have on a shelf called too-intense-to-read-alone, lol.

message 23: by Gea (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gea Incredible review. Thank you for all the references. I am very interested in the nature of violence and a student of religion, so I will definitely check this out.

message 24: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Hi Will:

Missed this first time around (out of town) so glad it came back around.

Thought provoking review and your questions to Mr. Vann were the icing on the cake. What thoughtful questions and I'm sure he appreciated answering them. They required thinking on his part, not just spewing something out which I'm sure he gets from time to time.

It seems that every review you post, makes me think in more broad terms about living in this world, this time, this violent world.

Well done, my friend, very well done.

message 25: by John (new) - added it

John M. Sounds great - I will check it out when it's released.

message 26: by Gea (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gea Incredible interview. Deep stuff. I'm going to have to read it again. Thank you!

message 27: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Vann is a fascinating guy

message 28: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I just found this review, Will. It is exceptional and the interview is really compelling. I'm still not certain whether this book is for me but I have a feeling that I should try something of Vann's. His very thoughtfulness is so encouraging and exciting to encounter.

message 29: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes He is a fascinating writer

message 30: by Melissa (new) - added it

Melissa Crytzer Fry I was immediately intrigued by this one when it came out in hardcover. Now you've got me wanting to push it ahead of others (this is a frequent occurrence after I read your reviews!)

My book club has waffled over this as a pick for more than a year!

message 31: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Melissa wrote: "I was immediately intrigued by this one when it came out in hardcover. Now you've got me wanting to push it ahead of others (this is a frequent occurrence after I read your reviews!)

My book club ..."

Thanks, Melissa. This one would definitely be an excellent bc choice.

message 32: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Not a book I want to consider, although your review is as always in-depth and fascinating.

message 33: by Michele (new) - added it

Michele Dark, violent, sad? I'm in!

message 34: by Carol (new)

Carol Not for me but I loved this review, Will!

LeAnne: GeezerMom I want to be surprised, so Im not reading your review until I finish the book myself. That said, I see you gave it five stars and only a third or so of the way through, I would do the same for this first section. God, he can write!

message 36: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Yes, he can.

LeAnne: GeezerMom Just finished. Utterly outstanding but his philosophical musings are a half pay grade above mine. Caribou Island was fantastic...need to get my hands on more of his work.

message 38: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes He has two in the pipeline, Bright Air Black for later this year in the UK, Netherlands, Oz and NZ, 2017 in the USA. Expect it to be bloody.

Helmor12 Thanks for a wonderful review
I thought the book was compelling, disturbing and beautifully written

message 40: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thank you, Helmor

LeAnne: GeezerMom Will wrote: "He has two in the pipeline, Bright Air Black for later this year in the UK, Netherlands, Oz and NZ, 2017 in the USA. Expect it to be bloody."

I will pop onto Net Galley and Edelweiss to see if anything has popped up. In the interim, I went back and read Aquarium and thought the characters were a touch cartoonish. Caribou Island is still my favorite of his so far. Boy, can he write.

message 42: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Aquarium is definitely at a very different intensity level from Vann's other books. Caribou Island is amazing and still my Vann favorite too.

message 43: by Stacy (new) - added it

Stacy Interesting. I will check this out. Nice review Will. : )

message 44: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Stacy.

message 45: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Stellar review. Van is morose, depressing ... and brutally honest. His three books That I read were downers meaning they were depressing and Aldo I could not put them down. Despite your spoilers I am looking forward to reading this book.

message 46: by Will (last edited Oct 25, 2019 09:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, John

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