is a masterpiece. Set in the remote bleakness of water-soaked, small town Alaska, this is a tale of desperation, failure, of man-versus-nature but also of man so arrogant and self-involved, so removed from reality that he does not bother to properly prepare for the battle. Some hope is gleaned, some battles are won, but the war seen here is a dark, suffocating presence.
Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn’t cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.
Whereas most fiction floats atop a watery base of prose, Vann’s characters and story sit amidst a thick stew of imagery. His writing has the density, the economy of a short story. No event occurs that does not contribute to the underlying momentum, or to enhancing our understanding of the characters or their actions. Salmon thrashing about on the deck of a boat echo how his characters struggle to survive the travails of their lives. One even dreams of himself underwater with the hooked fish. The Alaskan environment is as much a character as the characters themselves. While it can be a beautiful landscape, and that is noted more than once, it is mostly harsh here, offering chill wind, rain, snow, cold, the harshness of the venue reflecting the harshness of the characters’ emotional states.
The water was no longer turquoise. A dark, dark blue today, with blackness in it, a clarity, no glacial silt suspended. Irene didn’t know it could change so completely in even a day. A different lake now. Another metaphor for itself, each new version refuting all previous.
Vann’s language is as unadorned as a block of Hubbard ice, reminding me of Cormac McCarthy, particularly in his frequent verb-free sentence constructions.
The primary actors in Caribou Island are a late-middle-aged couple, Gary and Irene. Gary is impulsive, controlling, a bully and a coward, who cannot ever see himself as being in the wrong. He wants to test his mettle by constructing a cabin on the shore of remote Caribou Island. Another character thinks about sailing a ship around the world, thus conjuring Robert Stone and Outerbridge Reach
. Gary’s wife, Irene, desperately trying to save her marriage, reluctantly agrees to help, despite knowing that constructing this cabin is only another in a long history of follies. Their daughter, Rhoda, is a veterinarian’s assistant. She lives with, and expects to marry Jim, a dentist, who is going through a mid-life crisis. A sociopathic man-user rips through the scenery, leaving a trail of destruction, and a few minor characters are given lines. But their actions serve primarily to highlight the larger issues. Looming over all is Irene’s memory from age ten, when she found her mother, hanging.
What effect must that have had on such a young person? Vann ought to know. His own father took his life when Vann was thirteen. Irene carries that memory on her back like Jesus stumbling toward Calvary. Given Vann’s prior work, one must wonder if one or more of his characters will find their way to a similar a dark end.
But there is a route. There are reasons, challenges, revelations, lies, contemplations. Abandonment and isolation are prime here. Vann casts a laser light on how people manage to see past each other, how they miss chances to connect. He looks at how fear, whether of failure, or of being alone, can help cause the very things we most want to avoid. Even the sociopath is running from something
. Vann shows how people can make each other invisible, whether consciously or not, and do so at their peril, and how their externalizing of internal issues and images impacts those around them. Are we doomed to repeat the crimes of our parents? Of our parents’ parents? Of forebears beyond counting?
The subject matter may be tough, but the journey is incredibly rich, the main characters well realized, the craft impressive. You will find yourself thinking about scenes from this book long after you have moved on to your next read. Vann is the real deal, and this is top notch literature. Climb into your leaky boat, brave the icy wind and squall-driven waves slapping at the sides of your craft and head over to Caribou Island
. It is a memorable sojourn. And if this is not recognized as one of the best books of 2011, I will eat my copy.