An extract from "Caribou Island," the new novel from award-winning American author David Vannby David Vann / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
When David Vann published Legend of a Suicide in 2009 he was hailed as a new voice in American literature. Alaskan-born Vann wrested his fictionalised memoir from the post 9/11 fragments of American narrative and stretched the limits of what fiction could do. His book was an exercise in existential despair which sought to pinpoint the moment when the death of his father, who committed suicide when Vann was a boy, changed his world view.
Its author went from being an unknown to a global name and in 2010 he won France’s Prix Médicis for best foreign book. The extract below is from Vann’s second novel Caribou Island and concerns the fate of seven characters struggling to find love and hold on to it within the constraints of marriage.
Monique didn’t want the quick tour. She wanted the full five-hour tour with glaciers, Prince William Sound, a lunch stop in Seward, on to Homer, the entire peninsula. They climbed into a sleek black helicopter and donned helmets.
Monique leaned close and grabbed his arm. Thanks, Jim, she said in the headset. This is going to be fun. And as the motor whirred up, he felt his spirits rising, too. Maybe this would work out.
The pilot eased them into the air and started saying dumb things about Alaska. We’re almost the size of the Alaska State Bird, and do you know what that is, folks?
The mosquito, Jim said in an unenthusiastic voice.
The pilot paused a minute, thrown off. That’s right, he said.
Are you from here?
OK. I’ll just point out a few sights when we get out farther. Enjoy the ride, folks. Let me know if you have any questions.
They rose up quick and banked off to the east. Forest and then Skilak Lake, which the pilot announced. Jim peered out the window and tried to find Rhoda’s parents’ house, or Mark’s house, but they were buried somewhere in the trees. The lake a deep jade green today in sunlight, ripples on the surface visible even from high up. A river zigging northeast from the head of the lake.
Beginning of Skilak Glacier, folks, the pilot said. This feeds into Skilak Lake. We’ll follow it up into the mountains.
The pilot skimmed lower over the ice, the helicopter a tiny thing in a vast expanse of white, the glacier a wide chute with steep rock on both sides.
Wow, Monique said.
The glacier a thing of pressure, crevassed and bent. It looked alive to Jim, and he wondered why he’d never come up in a helicopter before. This was gorgeous. Rhoda should see this, too.
She’d grown up basically at the foot of the glacier, but it was around the corner a bit, not quite visible from the lake, and even if she’d seen it on hikes, he was sure she hadn’t seen it like this.
I want to land on it, Monique said.
The pilot had a headset, too, but he didn’t respond.
Is that OK? Jim asked. Can we land on it?
Well, the pilot said. Yeah. I guess we could. You’ll have to stay close, though. No wandering off.
That’s fine, Jim said.
The pilot continued toward the head of the glacier, then slowed his airspeed, came in lower, looked around for a safe spot. The crevasses up close were much bigger than Jim had imagined. Everything immense, the distances farther, the rock walls higher.
And no sign of other humans.
They came down slowly onto a smooth area of snow, away from any crevasse. Snow whipped up in a cloud around them, the rails touched down in a jolt, and the pilot eased off on the rotors, finally cut the engine. The air cleared again. Bright sunshine. Monique was the first to step out. She had always wanted to walk on a glacier. A brand-new world, she said over her shoulder.
She could hear Jim hop down behind her. She would have preferred the moment alone.
Pretty amazing, Jim said.
So quiet, she said. Let’s not talk. Let’s just experience this.
OK, he said.
Monique set off toward a crevasse, a ridge of blue light. It was like a beacon, translucent. Most were hollows, cuts, but this one had been raised up under pressure, and as she walked toward it, she realised the distances here were deceiving. Much farther away and larger than she had thought.
I love this, she said. An expanding universe, right here.
I thought we weren’t talking, Jim said.
That rule’s only for you. So you don’t spoil my moment.
She walked on, her boots sinking through the soft top layer of snow and hitting hard ice. She knew there could be falls here, covered, invisible crevasses, but it all felt so safe anyway. She sat down backward into the snow, did a snow angel, looked up into the bright blue. This rocks, she said.
Hm, Jim said.
Poor Jim. You can talk now.
That’s all right, he said. It’s a nice spot. I can’t believe I’ve never come out here before.
Mm, Monique said. I love this. She closed her eyes and felt the cold seeping in through her jeans and even through her jacket.
Refreshing and clear. I could almost take a nap, she said.
But after a few more minutes, her head was getting cold, so she got up and they walked back to the helicopter.
They buckled in, put on their headsets. Take us to the heavens, sir, Monique told the pilot.
Aye-aye, ma’am, he said, and the rotors whirred up and they rose into an even greater expanse of white, the Harding Icefield, extending maybe a hundred miles. Cushiony, pillowy, with dark peaks protruding. They crossed the range and could see ocean extending outward before them.
Gulf of Alaska, the pilot said. We’ll be passing over Mount Marathon up ahead, dropping down over Seward. Resurrection Bay. We’ll continue on to Prince William Sound and come back this way to Seward for lunch, if that works for you folks.
Sounds great, Jim said. Thanks.
They dropped below the snow line, green mountains falling into Resurrection Bay. A deep, deep blue. Monique kept looking out her side window, but she also put her hand on Jim’s leg and moved it up to his crotch. Not much at first, but then she could feel him getting hard. She rubbed lightly, and could feel he was getting bunched up, bent over in a U shape in his underwear.
This was kind of funny, so she kept her hand on it, helped keep it in that shape. She could feel him shifting around, uncomfortable.
Then she laughed.
Sorry, she said. He looked a bit hurt, but she couldn’t stop laughing. Sorry about that. And she pulled him closer for a kiss, but it was impossible with the helmets. She couldn’t reach his lips, and this made her laugh harder. Sorry, she said. Later, I promise. Then she looked out her side window again.
They skimmed low over the coast now, waves crashing white against black rock, evergreen forest grown thick down to the edge. A few wide gray pebbly beaches, driftwood. Spectacular, all of it. And no houses along the shore. This was what most amazed Monique, coming from DC. It really was a frontier.
I don’t want to go back to Soldotna, Monique said. I want to stay out here. Let’s get a hotel in Seward, something with a hot tub.
Jim wasn’t sure what to make of this. He looked over at Monique, but she was gazing out her side window, turned away from him. He didn’t know how he’d explain to Rhoda, but maybe he could say he had to take a trip to meet that potential partner for the practice. That would probably work. And a hotel, the two of them, spending the night, didn’t sound bad. Monique might still just yank him around, but there was a chance.
Is that all right? he asked the pilot, finally. Could we stop in Seward and get picked up tomorrow?
Yeah, I don’t see why not, the pilot said. There’ll be an extra fee, of course.
Jim and Monique checked into a suite in the nicest hotel in Seward. Fake carved ivory on side tables, bad watercolours of fishing boats. A giant and inviting bed, though, which was where Jim’s gaze went. Jacuzzi tub, also, big enough for two.
Let’s have lunch, Monique said. And then a boat tour.
OK, Jim said, trying to keep the sadness and longing out of his voice. They were out the door and walking along the wharf.
Other tourists here today also, the sidewalks full. An Alaskan ferry had pulled up. So Jim waited in line at one of the tour companies while Monique went into the shops. A nice day, and Monique, gorgeous and long and thin, was turning every head, and Jim thought he should have felt happy. But he felt used, pissed off, and guilty. Get over it, he mumbled to himself. You’re in this far already. He certainly didn’t want to miss the payoff.
He had never taken Rhoda on a vacation like this, even for a day or two. They hadn’t gone anywhere.
Jim made it to the front of the line, finally, two tickets for a three-hour tour of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. A three-hour tour, he sang quietly, from the Gilligan’s Island theme, but the woman had heard this about a million times, so no response.
Jim found Monique marvelling at black velvet posters of bears and bald eagles. These are amazing, she said. This has to be as low as art goes. I have to have one.
OK, Jim said, and bought a four-foot velvet poster of a brown bear catching a salmon.
This is a cultural archive you’re preserving, Monique said.
Nothing less. She took his arm, laughing at Alaska and tourists, and they walked toward lunch.
Just the touch of her on his arm got Jim hard. He realized he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anyone else. Even high school and junior high crushes hadn’t felt this urgent, and he was forty-one. He hadn’t thought he was capable of feeling this anymore. Sex with Rhoda every few days was as much as he could usually muster. He wondered again at Monique’s age. He was guessing early twenties, but he didn’t know. She seemed a lot younger than Rhoda, who was thirty.
They found a table on the wharf, ordered oysters and halibut and champagne. Jim didn’t eat oysters usually, because of the stomach sacks. He tried not to eat anything with a stomach sack.
But Monique made him try one, and really it wasn’t so bad. He tasted the butter, mostly, and the Tabasco burned his lips. He didn’t chew much. More of a swallow.
Delight me with tales of Alaska, Monique said. Maybe start with your closest call with a bear.
What about you? Jim asked. I know almost nothing about you.
I’m boring, Monique said. DC, impressive parents, good schools, no vision or sense of purpose.
How old are you? he asked.
Old enough, she said, and if you want to fuck me, you have to quit asking that question.
Sorry, he said.
Now tell me about the bear.
It was on a river. The same river where I caught my first king salmon, when I was about ten or maybe even younger. I just remember that the fish was taller than me. I was forty-eight inches, and the fish was forty-nine and a half. I played that thing for almost an hour, getting pulled down the river, trying to stay in the shallower water along the bank. I was wearing hip waders, afraid of going under, but my dad was holding on to me.
Ah, Monique said. I bet you were a cute little boy.
Blond hair, blue eyes, full of charm, Jim said.
So it was on this same river years later, Jim said. I was in my early twenties, going back for nostalgia, fishing the same spot, but I was by myself, which is a no-no, and it was late in the season, when the bears are a bit more desperate, and when I caught a salmon, I gutted it and then hung it off my backpack as I kept fishing.
No, Monique said.
Yeah, I had it hanging there on my back, about three feet of shiny, smelly, gutted salmon, swinging around on my back while I fished. I was like a lure for bears.
Monique was shaking her head.
So I heard something behind me, heavy splashing, and I turn to see this huge brown bear. A grizzly. The kind that eat people.
Crashing through the water at me, and then it stopped. And I realised the salmon was on my back hidden from the bear now, like I was trying to keep food away from it.
What did you do?
I’ll tell you the rest later, Jim said.
Monique punched his arm. She had good reach from across the table. Fucker, she said quietly, so no one would hear.
In Alaska, you have to earn your stories, he said and grinned.