There seems to be a strong theme running through North American novels, particularly in the works of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, that focuses on the nature of violence and how it’s an intrinsic part of humanity. Upon beginning Goat Mountain, the similarities to the style of McCarthy are clear – from the lack of dialogue punctuation to the lack of names for the characters, both of which can also be seen in McCarthy’s book The Road. These are stories about human beings at their basest, being brought back to their natural and beastly origins. The lack of speech marks makes the dialogue seem part of the descriptions of the landscape that overwhelms both novels. The lack of names lowers the characters to the same level as the creatures and nature around them, apart from Tom in Goat Mountain, who, crucially, is the only voice of dissent and the only character that attempts to bring the civilised world into the events in the novel.
Goat Mountain is narrated by an eleven year old boy, who’s on a hunting trip with his father, grandfather and family friend Tom. Upon their arrival at the reserve, the boy’s father spots a poacher in the distance, and shows the man to his son through the sights of his rifle. The son, without any strong feeling it seems, shoots the poacher dead. The rest of the book then follows their weekend on the eponymous Goat Mountain, and their increasingly desperate choices in the company of a dead body and a young killer.
The overwhelming majority of both Steinbeck, McCarthy and Vann’s novels are set in South Western States of the US, and the reason for this could not least be the way that the landscapes of Texas, New Mexico and California lend themselves so easily to religious allegory and metaphor, perhaps most obviously in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Vann is similarly overt in his religious tones to say the least, repeatedly referring back to Cain and Abel, Jesus in the desert with the devil, as well as Jesus on the cross, to the point where it actually feels a bit overdone. In a section where the boy is required to drag the carcass of a deer across the mountain, he’s both compared to the devil, in the way his outline transforms with the deer’s horns looming over his head and the hooves shadowing his feet, but also Jesus, in the way that he suffers under his grandfather’s ruling, his grandfather often described as a godlike figure in the book. Perhaps it was intentional, but for me it was muddling and sadly weakens the strength of both the metaphors.
Apart from this slight overabundance of religious allegory however, Goat Mountain is otherwise rewarding, gripping and unforgiving until the end. Its most striking and memorable moments are those parts in which the emotionless voice of the eleven year old narrator describes his killing of the poacher and later his first killing of a buck, which interestingly he mourns far more than the human he has killed. As it is for this character, it’s the same for us; you end up feeling more for the dying deer than you do for the poacher as his death is so distant, physically and emotionally to the character, whereas the deer’s is intimate and full of pain and struggle. The boy himself wonders how it came to be that there are such distinctions between animal and human, their emotions of fear and anger so similar, as their anatomical similarities are. These philosophical moments are genuinely effective and the writing is brutally poetic.
Although other parts of Goat Mountain are perhaps too ponderous and existential in comparison to the moments of panic and violence that bookend it, the book leaves you with a cold sense of satisfaction for the fate of this small group of men for whom killing is a tradition, and even a small amount of sympathy for this boy in the middle of it. Whether you’re already a fan of the books that this story echoes or not, it will leave you reeling.