Novel offers vision of hunting trip gone awry

“Goat Mountain” (Harper), by David Vann

Gun owners like to say they teach their children to never point a loaded weapon at another person. But what if a father let his 11-year-old son peer through the scope of a loaded rifle at a poacher? What if the inevitable catastrophe occurred? And what if the father decided not to report it to the authorities?

Already these people would have violated several rules of civilized society, and over the course of “Goat Mountain,” a violent and disturbing new novel from award-winning writer David Vann, things will get much worse.

The story is narrated by that unnamed boy, who is looking back as an adult at the life-changing events of that trip and trying to remember what he felt as a child. “Some part in me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end,” he remembers feeling at the start of the journey, perched in the back of his dad’s pickup watching quail scurrying along the road.

Over the next few days, his father will string up a human corpse over the campsite; his grandfather will try to kill him; his father’s best friend will be hunted like an animal; and he’ll shoot his first buck — a family rite of passage — and be forced to eat its still-warm liver and heart. Then he’ll have to castrate the beast — “what made the buck a man needed to be removed also” — and haul its 120-pound carcass back to camp at night alone.

This is not a book for the queasy of stomach nor for the literal-minded reader. It’s loaded with allusions to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the half-human, half-animal figures of Greek myth. “We drink the blood of Christ so we can become animals again,” Vann suggests in one portentous passage.

The only relief from the guts and gore — human and animal — are Vann’s evocative descriptions of the rugged backcountry of Northern California, where the men go hunting on the family’s property. And he can be funny about the price we pay for civilization, as in this description of his grandfather: He “had become something modern, an obesity pumped full of insulin and pills and unable to walk through a forest for miles. A thousand generations, tens of thousands of years, ended by him.”