The prize-winning author of Dirt, Caribou Island, and Legend of a Suicide returns with a searing, morally complex novel about families, violence, and regret.
In the fall of 1978, on a 640-acre family ranch on Goat Mountain in Northern California, an eleven-year-old boy joins his grandfather, his father, and his father’s best friend on the family’s annual deer hunt.
Every fall they return to this dry, yellowed landscape dotted with oak, buck brush, and the occasional stand of pine trees. Goat Mountain is what this family owns and where they belong. It is where their history is kept, memories and stories that will be shared again by these men. And for the first time, the boy’s story will be added if he can find a buck. Itching to shoot, he is ready.
When the men arrive at the gate to their land, the father discovers a poacher and sights him through the scope of his gun. He offers his son a look—a simple act that will explode in tragedy, transforming these men and this family, forcing them to question themselves and everything they thought they knew.
In prose devasting and beautiful in its precision, David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel that explores our most primal urges, the bonds that bind us together, and the consequences of our actions—what we owe for what we’ve done.
Foreign editions: UK and Ireland (and most Commonwealth countries), Australia and New Zealand, French, German, Dutch, Spanish (Castilian), Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Korean.
Finalist, California Book Award in Fiction 2013.
Longlisted, Chautauqua Prize 2013.
“David Vann knows the dark interior of family tragedies — his own life is fraught with them — and he brings both witness and intense examination to stories of human savagery. His work speaks with an understanding of the unconscionable. “Goat Mountain,” his third Sophoclean novel, is muscular, existential, barbaric and dense with allegory. This is his thesis on killing, a world devoid of women and left to hunters who exult in nothing but taking life…Vann is in conversation with William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” James Dickey’s “Deliverance” and Ron Carlson’s “The Signal,” to name a few, but he is doing something on his own here. He writes in fragments sometimes, impressionistic descriptions linked by commas into a kind of prose poetry…description rich and precise…a deeply realized sense of place…Vann works as a preacher might, circling continually back to the heart of his message throughout a sermon. He expects us to be affected, even uncomfortable. He’s doing something fearless with allegory and character, building a soulless narrator to represent our true nature: primal, instinctual, unapologetic…Vann gives us a landscape, one that really exists, and transforms it into Eden laid waste, a hell on Earth. Religions have always used stories this way, and Vann, a former religious studies major, has clearly read his Bible as carefully as he’s read “Blood Meridian” and “The Road.” But the novel is not about faith or forgiveness or hope or redemption. It’s about surviving our past and the fear of the gods we know.” Benjamin Busch, Washington Post Book World
“Structurally, the novel is as reliable as liturgy. Each chapter begins with the present-day narrator’s warped biblical exegesis. Next, long sensory descriptions of the landscape slide in and out of philosophical meditation. These swaths of interiority are eventually interrupted by a jolt of action. Stylistically, the novel is an incantation of fragments, through which complete narrative sentences occasionally burst. The prose is as taut as lean muscle and creates a chilling kind of hypnosis: We begin to think as this 11-year-old boy thinks, an impossible feat of intense artistry, given his horrendous acts and inscrutably twisted mind.” Claire Vaye Watkins, San Francisco Chronicle
“David Vann’s fiction is filled with silence, yet it hums and howls. It is the silence that hangs between gruff fathers and their bewildered young sons, that is foisted by disenchanted husbands on their undeserving wives. It is intense, implosive, infused with disappointment, edged with violence…It is not easy to make a drama out of stillness. Sergio Leone achieved it in his Westerns, Harold Pinter in his plays. It is even harder when your only medium is words on a page. Mr. Vann crafts his universe with brilliantly precise prose that is biblical in its allusions and unflinching in its gaze…”Goat Mountain” is courageous in its metaphysical reach and transfixing in its telling. Its rhythmic prose gains strength in being freed from the constraints of traditional sentence structure. The absence of personal pronouns imparts universality to the story, and repetition lends a fabular quality. “Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day,” runs the opening. “Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed.”… The scene in which he guts and slices up the animal, removing its organs, eating its heart and liver—an initiation rite practiced by his forebears—is devastatingly vivid. Throughout “Goat Mountain,” you can hear the crackle of twigs in the forest, the dread click of the safety catch, the roaring echo of the universe. “The world was mostly empty,” observes the boy—and what exists has been denied to us through consciousness. “The curse of humanity is to lose the world, through the loss of immersion.” Mr. Vann’s immersive prose helps us rediscover it.” Toby Lichtig, Wall Street Journal and Times Literary Supplement
“A mere 200+ pages, it does what many novels never accomplish in hundreds more: create a pulsing, panting world in which every thought feels like life or death. Since his 2008 debut, Vann has been compared to the likes of Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner and McCarthy—sometimes coming out ahead. It’s not hype. Easily one of the most exciting writers of the past decade, Vann keeps proving with each addition to his small but stunning oeuvre that he is not a fluke. Goat Mountain wrestles with no less than God, morality, the very origin of man and his nature. It comes out alive. Ambitious and potent, both Vann and Goat Mountain amaze.” BookPage
“Vann’s prose has a primal heft to it: his landscapes full of deep roots and ancient rocks, a magnetic zone where moral compasses fail. Like most of his fiction, Goat Mountain mainly sticks to the three unities of Greek tragedy, giving it a ratcheting real-time tension…The novel is not just gripping: it tightens slowly around its reader like a boa constrictor. Vann might not have killed a poacher but he was 7 when his father gave him his first rifle, and he shot his first buck aged 11. Goat Mountain is a brilliant and wise interrogation of a world in which “We were always killing something, and it seemed we were put here to kill”. Tom Gatti, The Times (London)
“Vann is a writer who hunts big game. He tracks the same wild territory as Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy – the violence and perversity at the root of what we call human nature, the animal savagery that is our first inheritance…For all its unyielding darkness, Goat Mountain is, perhaps perversely, an exhilarating experience. It is, first of all, cathartic in the way of all good tragedies. But it is also exhilarating for the least perverse of reasons: the experience of reading a novelist of David Vann’s rare artistry and vision.” Mark O’Connell, The Observer
“Tragic, poignant, and brutal…no one denies its intensity.” New Statesman, Reviews Round-Up
“The novel is at once both beautiful and brutal. Vann has crafted a gripping masterpiece that captures the complexity of a world where tradition and routine substitute for love, where nurture is replaced by nature and killing second-nature. This is a powerful coming-of-age story that throws you in the back of the pickup on an impassable road for a ride you can’t get off and to a destination you’d never imagine, but can’t stop thinking about…With “Goat Mountain” he continues blazing down the trail as one of our next great American writers.” Don Rearden, Anchorage Daily News
“This is Vann’s fourth novel, and in that short time he’s mapped out a unique fictional territory, a rugged, literary landscape with debts to Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway but with an acuteness of eye that’s all the author’s own…The book is astonishing in many ways. Addressing the flexibility of morality in the face of adversity, it has a timeless quality about it, examining with searing insight the nature of humanity and how it grew out of our ancient past and our relationship with the land. Vann’s description of place and action is unsurpassed, a wonderful clarity to his prose, and the voice of his narrator is truly frightening as he tries to come to terms with what’s happened. The tension builds to an extraordinary and explosive climax among the heavily forested mountains, where everything that makes us who we are is called into question. Powerful and deep stuff.” Doug Johnstone, bigissue.com
Starred Library Journal review: “Internationally acclaimed and best-selling author Vann (Caribou Island; Legend of a Suicide) unveils a shocking and disturbing novel about a deer-hunting trip to a remote 640-acre family ranch in northern California gone tragically, monstrously awry. The book offers a meditation on the violent nature of man, an extended disquisition on Cain and Abel, the Bible, the condition of man’s relationship to God, and the “beast” within us all. Alaska-born Vann experienced catastrophic family violence in his past, and his work has returned to this theme again and again, this being his most ambitious exploration of the subject. Vann brings this existentialist family drama about living and killing to life powerfully and convincingly through a charismatic, violent grandfather, a well-meaning father, and the father’s dangerous, sometimes inscrutable 11-year-old son, who kills two men on this ill-fated trip. The author’s descriptions of the northern California landscape–the chaparral, woods, and mountains—are also masterly. VERDICT This beautifully realized novel is recommended for fans of literary fiction but is not for the faint of heart.”
Publishers Weekly Review of the Week: “This flint-hard novel, in its intensity, will likely be compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy.”
“His finest, most contemplative work to date.” Booklist
“The book has the quality of a ballad or a folk tale…Goat Mountain, the devilish hill on which these events transpire, remains a closed and terrible world…This story has the power of a bullet fired from a gun.” The Economist
“In this powerful tale of the complicated fragility of family ties,…internationally acclaimed and bestselling author David Vann convincingly conjures up the primeval atmosphere of the uninhabited wilderness and the depth of the hunting instinct. The spirit of the Old Testament is never very far from his prose, and the story of Cain and Abel hovers over the boy’s sense of right and wrong. This is tense and unsettling stuff, difficult to put down and disturbingly memorable.” The Daily Mail
“Vann evokes the scrub, ridges and conifers of northern California with the meticulous eye of a great landscape artist. Playing out the desperate consequences of the boy’s act, this story has genuine potency too. While the themes are stark – he seems fixated on how families tear themselves apart – Vann operates at such extremes with a hard-won natural authority.” Sunday Telegraph
“The story emerges with the riveting primitivism of a storyboarded cave painting… What follows is one of the most gruesome, awesomely described hunting scenes in American literature… How is it a crime to obey instincts wilder than we know? As the child narrator says: “The Ten Commandments is a list of our instincts that will never leave us.” With this novel, Vann looks into the heart not of elsewhere but what we bring there – ourselves – and finds that paradise has fallen because, well, we’re in it.” The Weekend Australian
“Novels by Dave Eggers and David Vann are at the top of October’s new releases by Bay Area authors…No one walks the line between familial love and explosive violence as deftly as David Vann.” San Jose Mercury News
“Brutally brilliant.” Sunday Star Times (Australia)
“Told from the obvious point of an adult who was once that boy, “Goat Mountain” takes readers through incredible beauty, lush views and breath-taking landscapes, down into a sharp cone of grieved madness and brutality. It’s easy to think the boy is a brat; easier to think he’s a monster, but Vann teases out his storyline until we’re not really sure where evil lies or where it came from. I like that in a novel, and I loved this one. So pour yourself a cold one this week, settle into your easy chair, and be ready to miss a lot of sleep. You’ve been waiting a long time for a novel that’ll capture your attention like this does, which makes “Goat Mountain” the book to hunt for.” The Bookworm (Terri Schlichenmeyer), syndicated to many newspapers
“Violent and disturbing…evocative.” Associated Press (picked up by about 200 newspapers and websites)
“The language David Vann uses is so powerful, evocative and discerning, that he is an author with a sizeable cult status. The atmosphere of authenticity that is part of his work must contribute to this.” de Volkskrant (****) (Netherlands)
“Phenomenal. Goat Mountain is a shocking, dark novel, written in fiery images, brimming with sensory details.” De Standaard (****) (Netherlands)
“While Vann builds the tension in staccato sentences and gorgeously dark landscape descriptions, Goat Mountain gears towards an inevitable and incredibly raw final scene. An impressive parable.” Het Parool (****) (Netherlands)
“A scorching novel in the spectacular sequence of family chronicles. Goat Mountain is a frightening, but incredibly beautiful novel.” Nu.nl (****½) (Netherlands)
“Goat Mountain is a masterly novel of biblical proportions about morals, responsibility and human nature. With every new book, Vann’s precise style becomes more powerful. There is no escape, not for the characters, nor for the reader.” Boek Magazine (Netherlands)
“David Vann first came to prominence with Legend of a Suicide and since then has used the events in his own life to create stark and compelling fiction. Looking back, Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island and Dirt seem almost gentle, tame when compared to Goat Mountain. The writing is even better than before, forcing its way off the page, having as little regard for the reader as the boy did for the poacher. It’s brutal, horrific at times and the book is decidedly not for those of a delicate disposition – but then that could probably be said for all of Vann’s writing. There’s not a word in the book which doesn’t earn its keep. It looks like a slim volume but there’s no way that this is a quick and easy read. I found it mentally draining and provocative, difficult to compare to anything I’ve read since Golding’s Lord of the Flies – and that was fifty years ago.” Bookbag.co.uk
“No one writing today has transformed the events of his own life into thrilling fiction more memorably than David Vann in Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island. Now in Goat Mountain he has done it again, with even greater force and artistry, giving us a story of family bonds, betrayal, fate. This book is written on the edge, a story of legacies, cruelty, the mysteries of DNA and blood, rewarding the reader sentence by sentence and scene by scene right to the astonishing and terrifying ending.” Robert Morgan, Author of GAP CREEK
“David Vann is at once the most timely and timeless of writers, a literary master of humankind’s primal embrace of violence, against others and against ourselves. Goat Mountain is a ravishing example of his mastery, as its truths resonate into the nightly headlines and then far beyond, into our history and into our destiny. This book will touch you to the depths of our shared, flawed humanity.” Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain