After his widely acclaimed first novel, Vann touches on some of the same themes here: enlightenment through labor, the inevitability of violence, the contentious relationship between mother and son.
Vann takes us to the early ’80s in California’s Central Valley. Galen, in his 20s, lives on a crumbling family estate. Grandma, rich but with Alzheimer’s, has been dispatched to an old-folks home, leaving just Galen and his mother, Suzie-Q, to drink high tea under the fig tree. Emaciated from his attempts at earthly transcendence, Galen divides his time between reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, listening to the strains of Kitaro and masturbating to porn. He dreams of college but is falsely told there isn’t the money. His aunt and teenage cousin Jennifer visit for venom-filled dinners after which Jennifer tortures Galen with comically sadistic sex games. Galen lives in a curious limbo: In the hodgepodge of his esoteric understanding, life is an illusion, but the temptations of desire and anger seem real enough. After a disastrous family trip to the cabin (Aunt Helen tricks Grandma into giving her a few hundred grand, Suzie-Q spies on Galen and Jennifer having sex), Galen and his mother return home, and Vann’s novel journeys to its fetid center. Galen’s mother decides to call the police on Galen for “raping” his underage cousin, and so Galen locks her in the shed. For the ensuing hundred pages Galen does battle—with his mother, their past, the very notion of reality and who owns it. It is difficult for Suzie-Q to plead mercy when Galen insists she is simply an attachment preventing his enlightenment. His labor is his meditation: shoveling dirt around the edges of the shed, nailing boards to prevent her escape. Meanwhile, his mother, illusion or not, is dying. There is something of Beckett here in their cruel conversations that never get to the heart of the matter, that always seem to affirm Galen’s slim hold on reality.
At turns savage and comic, Vann’s richly complex novel does what the best literature does: It makes demands on its readers.