Goat Mountain by David Vann is a dark, brutal, crackling story about a boy, his father (and his friend) and his grandfather who go deer hunting in the mountains of California in the late 70s. Kathleen read it, liked it, and then recommended I give it a try because she thought I would appreciate the similarities with my own childhood. As I’ve described to her, probably to the point of mind-numbing boredom, I grew up on a ranch in Montana in the late 70s.
I read it in one sitting on a flight to DC (the very best circumstances to have a great book in your hands) and, more than finding a few similarities, the story at times felt like a cut and paste of my life.
The set up is that the boy, excited to make his first kill, is given the opportunity to look at a poacher through the scope of his fathers’ hunting rifle. Bad things happen and it all quickly spirals out of control into madness and violence.
Here’s the crazy part: I have a vivid memory of deer hunting as a boy on some private property up in the mountains – this was probably in Junior High — when I saw a friend across the canyon confront a poacher who wasn’t supposed to be there. Since they were both armed, I stretched out in the sagebrush and watched the poacher through the scope of my rifle just in case things went bad. They didn’t, luckily, but that memory came crashing to the fore when I started this book.
I was amazed by the parallels (minus the tragedy) and then drawn in by the authenticity of the hunting trip. I can still remember getting up well before the sun, packing sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, loading up the rifles and then piling into the truck to bounce around in mountains on ghosts of dirt roads looking for mule deer and elk. Next was the patient hike through forests and canyons, the thrill of spotting a target, the difficulty of bringing one of the big beasts down with a well-placed shot and then the difficult, gory intimate act of gutting and field dressing. The scenes brought it all back immediately.
Gory Days: Clark target shooting on the ranch.
This is not an easy book to read. Among other things, it plumbs the depths of violent urges and why we (and I don’t think it’s sexist to say that it seems especially prevalent among males) seem to enjoy killing so damn much. I was certainly guilty of that sort of mindless acceptance of killing as a source of pleasure and some sort of violent rite of passage into manhood. Looking back, I regret the lives sacrificed for my own lack of understanding. I’m pretty sure that it’s because of that bloody background, once I really started thinking about it, that led me to give up hunting and ultimately became a vegetarian for the past 20 years.
Though I have less experience in this area, the author also does a great job capturing the dynamics between generations of males in a lyrical, moving style. Hunting with my dad and my older brother was less emotionally charged, but probably only because the characters in Goat Mountain were able to articulate — in words and action — much better than males of my family. Could it be these potential fictional sociopaths were more self-aware than the Hays clan? Probably.
Goat Mountain felt, at times, like the dark, tortured Southern Gothic worldview of Flannery O’Connor only moved to the west coast where, though sunnier, was no less haunting. Like her works, a central theme was exploring the tension between Christian beliefs and human actions. I found this less accessible because, personally, the language and mythos don’t resonate with me. The Hays hunters fell somewhere between lapsed southern Baptist and atheist, the only significant difference between the book and my life. Well, that and the whole murdering and insanity part.
All in all, it was a worthy — and at times disturbing — read that, at least for people who grew up in the mountains of Montana or California in the late 1970s, is a bit like time traveling.