My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir
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“Exceptional….An unflinching portrait of bad faith and bad dreams.” —Ron Rash, author of Burning Bright
Set against the backdrop of Alaska’s unforgiving wilderness, Caribou Island is David Vann’s dark and captivating tale of a marriage pulled apart by rage and regret. With this eagerly anticipated debut novel, a masterful follow-up to his internationally bestselling short fiction anthology, Legend of a Suicide, Vann takes up the mantle of Louise Erdrich, Marilyn Robinson, and Rick Moody, delivering a powerfully wrought, enthrallingly emotional narrative of struggle and isolation.
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Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: 01-03-2012
Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Series: P.S. Series
Published in twenty languages, David Vann's internationally bestselling books have won fifteen prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and have appeared on seventy-five Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He's written for the New York Times, Atlantic, Esquire, Outside, Sunset, Men's Journal, McSweeney's, and many other publications, and he has been a Guggenheim, Stegner, and NEA fellow.
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By David Vann
Copyright © 2012 David Vann
All right reserved.
Chapter One My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She
was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a
hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the
buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I
was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself,
walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to
the narrow porch. I can't remember how my thoughts went then,
can't remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone,
erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging
from the rafters. I'm sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed
the door. I was outside on the porch again.
You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?
It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn't
see even at the time, so I can't see it now. I don't know what she
looked like hanging there. I don't remember any of it, only that
Rhoda scooted closer on the couch and put her arm around
her mother, pulled her close. They both looked at the fire. A
metal screen in front, small hexagons, and the longer Rhoda
looked, the more these hexagons seemed like the back wall of
the fireplace, made golden by flame. As if the back wall, black
with soot, could be revealed or transmuted by fire. Then her eyes
would shift and it would be only a screen again. I wish I had
known her, Rhoda said.
Me too, Irene said. She patted Rhoda's knee. I need to get to
sleep. Busy day tomorrow.
I'll miss this place.
It was a good home. But your father wants to leave me, and the
first step is to make us move out to that island. To make it seem
he gave it a try.
That's not true, Mom.
We all have rules, Rhoda. And your father's main rule is that
he can never seem like the bad guy.
He loves you, Mom.
Irene stood and hugged her daughter. Goodnight, Rhoda.
In the morning, Irene carried her end of log after log, from the
truck to the boat. These are never going to fit together, she said
to her husband, Gary.
I'll have to plane them down a bit, he said, tight-lipped.
Thanks, Gary said. He already had that grim, worried look
that accompanied all his impossible projects.
Why not build a cabin with boards? Irene asked. Why does it
have to be a log cabin?
But Gary wasn't answering.
Suit yourself, she said. But these aren't even logs. None of
them is bigger than six inches. It's going to look like a hovel
made out of sticks.
They were at the upper campground on Skilak Lake, the
water a pale jade green from glacial runoff. Flaky from silt, and
because of its depth, never warmed much, even in late summer.
The wind across it chill and constant, and the mountains rising
from its eastern shore still had pockets of snow. From their tops,
Irene had often seen, on clear days, the white volcanic peaks of
Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna across the Cook Inlet and,
in the foreground, the broad pan of the Kenai Peninsula: spongy
green and red-purple moss, the stunted trees rimming wetlands
and smaller lakes, and the one highway snaking silver in sunlight
as a river. Mostly public land. Their house and their son Mark's
house the only buildings along the shore of Skilak, and even they
were tucked back into 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.
Gary had backed his pickup close to where the boat sat on the
beach with an open bow, a ramp for loading cargo. With each
log, he stepped onto the boat and walked its length. A wobbly
walk, because the stern was in the water and bobbing.
Lincoln logs, Irene said.
I've heard about enough, Gary said.
Gary pulled another small log. Irene took her end. The sky
darkened a bit, and the water went from light jade to a blue-gray.
Irene looked up toward the mountain and could see one flank
whited. Rain, she said. Coming this way.
We'll just keep loading, Gary said. Put on your jacket if you
Gary wearing a flannel work shirt, long-sleeved, over his T-
shirt. Jeans and boots. His uniform. He looked like a younger
man, still fit for his mid-fifties. Irene still liked how he looked.
Unshaven, unshowered at the moment, but real.
Shouldn't take much longer, Gary said.
They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation
even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice
welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as if the two of them were the
first to come upon this wilderness.
So they kept loading, and the rain came toward them a white
shadow over the water. A kind of curtain, the squall line, but
the first drops and wind always hit just before, invisible, working
ahead of what she could see, and this always came as a surprise
to Irene. Those last moments taken away. And then the wind
kicked up, the squall line hit, and the drops came down large and
Irene grabbed her end of another log, walked toward the boat
with her face turned away from the wind. The rain blowing
sideways now, hitting hard. She wore no hat, no gloves. Her hair
matting, drips off her nose, and she felt that first chill as the rain
soaked through her shirt to her arms, one shoulder, her upper
back and neck. She hunched away from it as she walked, placed
her log, and then walked back hunched the other way, her other
side soaking through now, and she shivered.
Gary walking ahead of her, hunched also, his upper body
turned away from the rain as if it wanted to disobey his legs,
take off in its own direction. He grabbed the end of another log,
pulled it out, stepping backward, and then the rain hit harder.
The wind gusted, and the air was filled with water, white even
in close. The lake disappeared, the waves gone, the transition to
shore become speculative. Irene grabbed the log and followed
Gary into oblivion.
The wind and rain formed a roar, against which Irene could
hear no other sound. She walked mute, found the bow, placed
her log, turned and walked back, no longer hunched. There was
no dry part left to save. She was soaked through.
Gary walked past her a kind of bird man, his arms curved out
like wings first opening. Trying to keep his wet shirt away from
his skin? Or some instinctive first response to battle, readying his
arms? When he stopped at the truck bed, water streamed off the
end of his nose. His eyes hard and small, focused.
Irene moved in close. Should we stop? she yelled over the roar.
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 could 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 to 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. Fine, she would think. Fine.
And that meant, just wait.
Another half an hour of loading logs in the rain. Irene was
going to get sick from this, chilled through. They should have
been wearing rain gear, which they had in the cab of the truck,
but their stubbornness toward each other had prevented that. If
she had gone for her jacket when Gary suggested it, that would
have interrupted the work, slowed them down, and it would have
been noted, held against her, a small shake of the head, perhaps
even a sigh, but removed by long enough he could pretend it wasn't
about that. Above all else, Gary was an impatient man: impatient
with the larger shape of his life, with who he was and what he'd
done and become, impatient with his wife and children, and
then, of course, impatient with all the little things, any action not
done correctly, any moment of weather that was uncooperative.
A general and abiding impatience she had lived in for over thirty
years, an element she had breathed.
The last log loaded, finally, and Gary and Irene swung the
bow ramp into place. It was not heavy, not reassuring. Black
rubber where it met the side plates of the boat, forming a seal.
This would be their only way back and forth from the island.
I'll park the truck, Gary said, and stomped off through the
rocks. The rain still coming down, though not as blown now.
Enough visibility to know direction, though not enough to see the
island from here, a couple miles out. Irene wondered what would
happen when they were in the middle. Would they see any of the
shore, or only white all around them? No GPS on the boat, no
radar, no depth finder. It's a lake, Gary had said at the dealership.
It's only a lake.
There's water in the boat, Irene said when Gary returned.
It was pooling under the logs, gathered especially in the stern,
almost a foot deep from all the rain.
We'll take care of it once we're out, Gary said. I don't want to
use the battery for the bilge pump without the engine on.
So what's the plan? Irene asked. She didn't know how they
would push the boat off the beach, weighed down with the
You know, I'm not the only one who wanted this, Gary said.
It's not just my plan. It's our plan.
This was a lie, but too big a lie to address right here, right
now, in the rain. Fine, Irene said. How do we get the boat off the
Gary looked at the boat for a few moments. Then he bent
down and gave the bow a push. It didn't budge.
The front half of the boat was on land, and Irene was guessing
that meant hundreds of pounds at this point, fully loaded. Gary
hadn't thought of this, obviously. He was making it up as he went
Gary walked around to one side and then the other. He
climbed over logs to the stern, to the outboard engine, leaned
against this and pushed hard, trying to rock the boat, but it
might as well have been made of lead. No movement whatsoever.
So Gary crawled forward, hopped ashore, looked at the boat
for a while. Help me push, he finally said. Irene lined up beside
him, he counted one, two, three, and they both pushed at the bow.
Their feet slipped in the black pebbles, but no other movement.
It can never be easy, Gary said. Not a single thing. It can never
just work out.
As if to prove what he was saying, the rain came down heavier
again, the wind increasing, cold off the glacier. If you wanted to
be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this
was a good place for it. Irene knew Gary wouldn't appreciate any
comments, though. She tried to be supportive. Maybe we could
come back tomorrow, she said. The weather's supposed to
improve a bit. We could unload and push it out, then load again.
No, Gary said. I don't feel like doing it tomorrow. I'm taking
this load out today.
Irene held her tongue.
Gary stomped off to the truck. Irene stood in the rain, soaked
and wanting to be warm and dry. Their house very close, a few
minutes away. Hot bath, start a fire.
Gary drove the truck onto the beach, curving up toward the
trees, then down to the boat until he had the bumper close to the
bow. Let me know how close, he yelled out the window.
So Irene walked over and told him, and he eased forward until
the bumper was touching.
Okay, Irene said.
Gary gave it a little gas, and pebbles flew out behind his rear
wheels. The boat didn't budge. He shifted to low four-wheel
drive, gave it more gas, all four tires digging in, pebbles slamming
the underside of the truck body. The boat started to slip, then
went back fast into the water, drifting away in a curve.
Grab the bow line! Gary yelled out his window. Irene rushed
forward to grab the line that was loose on the beach. She caught
it and dug in her heels, lay back on the beach pulling hard until
the pressure eased. Then she just lay there, looking up into the
dark white sky. She could see the rain as streaks before it hit her
face. No gloves, her hands cold and the nylon line rough. The
pebbles and larger stones hard against the back of her head. Her
clothing a wet and cold outer shell.
She heard Gary drive the truck up to the parking area, and
then heard his boots on the way back, large determined strides.
Okay, he said, standing over her. Let's go.
What she wished was that he would just lie down beside her.
The two of them on this beach. They would give up, let the rope
go, let the boat drift away, forget about the cabin, forget about
all that hadn't gone right over the years and just go back to their
house and warm up and start over. It didn't seem impossible. If
they both decided to do it, they could.
Excerpted from Caribou Island by David Vann Copyright © 2012 by David Vann. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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