“If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this was a good place for it.”
Dark, bleak, and with a pervasive sense of impending doom, these are words to describe David Vann’s book: Caribou Island, a tale of a miserable marriage pushed to the limits in Alaska. The book argues that Alaska draws certain types: adventurers, yes, but also failures–people who are looking to fulfill a dream. This is certainly the case with Gary, who was working on his doctorate,”becoming a medievalist” at Berkeley. He realized that he would never finish it, and that he wasn’t that good, so he decided to take a year off and travel to Alaska. In tow was Irene, a girl he met and married, thinking that he could do better. She thought Gary was taking a year off, but in reality, he was “running away.” They never left Alaska. Fast forward thirty years
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 at anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.
When the novel opens, it’s late summer. Gary and Irene are engaged in building a log cabin on Caribou Island. For Gary, with his history of failure and “impossible projects,” the cabin is his next white whale. The couple, whose two adult children, Mark and Rhoda reside elsewhere, live in a ramshackle house on the shore of Skilak Lake. Their house is “tucked back into the trees so the lake still could seem prehistoric, wild. But it wasn’t enough to be on the shore, they were moving out, now, to Caribou Island.”
It’s not long before we realise how insane Gary’s plan is. Gary and Irene are in their mid 50s, and now he’s decided to build a log cabin with no running water, no indoor plumbing, perhaps a fireplace, on an island that is only accessible by water, and inaccessible once the lake has frozen. Gary has no plans for this log cabin and has no idea what he’s doing; he builds as he goes along. Nails don’t fit properly through the logs, and there are gaps between logs so that there will be no protection from the upcoming sub zero winter. The plan is doomed from the start, as Gary doesn’t begin until late in the season with storms already on the way. We follow Gary and Irene as they drag logs onto a boat to take to the island, and it’s in these scenes that author David Vann captures the subtle politics of a toxic marriage:
We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary would never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure for him.
Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done to each other for decades now, irresistibly.
The game of mutual punishment begins, and after a torturous day in the rain loading logs, with several mishaps along the way, Irene becomes ill. …
The plot shows man vs nature and also man vs man in a daily battle for survival. With man battling nature, the war is clear-cut, well-defined, but when humans battle each other–as they do in Gary and Irene’s case, the battle is more subtle with a series of barely visible hits scarring a marriage and psyches.
But Gary and Irene are not the only battling couple here. Their daughter, Rhoda, lives with Jim, a dentist. She’s 30 and he’s in his 40s turning to flab. It’s a relationship in which both parties have compromised. Rhoda loves Jim’s home with its fantastic views, and she takes care of him, planning an upscale wedding in Hawaii while ignoring Jim’s disconnectedness and lack of enthusiasm for the plan. With her former boyfriend, “the payoff had been a small trailer home with a few free halibut steaks. Whereas with Jim she had unlimited canned peaches and all the Krusteaz pancake mix anyone could ever want.”
As a reader I can’t say that I enjoyed the book; it’s too bleak and depressing for that, but the book is very well written, haunting and capable of creating visceral reactions in this reader. Through Irene’s illness, we get a sense of the remoteness of this community, and how getting an MRI involves a major excursion. Irene’s illness shows the fragility of the human condition, and yet Gary flies in defiance of this. I was committed to watch this train wreck of a marriage to its bitter end.