“I was a monster even before I was remade into another kind of monster.”These are the thoughts of an eleven-year-old boy who has done the unthinkable on a hunt with his father, grandfather and family friend, Tom, in the fall of 1978. What is meant to be the boy’s initiation into manhood with his first kill becomes instead a tragedy, a moment’s decision altering forever the primitive landscape of generational ties. These are men without the softening affects of women’s attentions, tough-skinned, judgmental and predictable as their annual trek to the 640-acre family ranch in Northern California where they annually hunt deer.
Each carries his own familiar weapon, each with its characteristics: the boy’s father’s rifle, well-oiled and carefully tended, a thing of beauty compared to the .30-.30 the boy owns-- “heavier and perfect, smooth wood and dark blue metal fused together as if all had been born of one piece.” Viewing a poacher through the scope of his father’s gun, the boy knows a moment of perfect harmony. Thus begins a novel that is both brutal and profound, etched in tragedy and played out before a merciless jury. One irrevocable action begets a series of reactions leaving one cast out from the others, found profoundly lacking, damaged.
The grandfather, aged, ravaged by time, all-seeing yet seeing nothing but his own vision, becomes the archetype of authority, assuming his role as leader though his son balks, not only at his father’s harsh judgments but in his need to protect the seed of his loins, caught up in his own journey of frustration, disappointment and despair. The boy watches these two men who have made him what he is now in conflict, son turning against father, the older man viciously subduing his grown son, claiming his authority. Tom, the outsider, is the voice of outrage, demanding things be made right in a place where civilization has no meaning, where atavistic impulses dominate and the instincts of self-survival awaken.
In spite of the tragedy and its lack of resolution, the hunt goes on, the boy left to manage by his wits and what he has learned from this group of men over the years. Recounting the experience from the distance of years and maturity, the boy—now a man—describes that fated hunting trip: his anticipation, the thrill of the kill, the shattering of family bonds and the brutal reality of an impulsive action with terrible consequences. This is familiar territory for Vann, the stark landscape of emotions laid bare, his staccato prose like gunfire, violent, abrupt. Judgment blankets the air, from the moment of tragedy to the boy’s first clumsy kill, left to manage the carcass on his own, from his changing perceptions of both father and grandfather to his refusal to follow directions blindly.
Given the author’s subtle references (including the title), there is little question that this novel is staged in a hellish landscape, the boy enduring real-time consequences, tested beyond his capabilities: “Hell is time refusing to pass, an endless task.” The lessons fall into place in later chapters that begin with Biblical references, a grown man’s ruminations on the fall of 1978, reflections on Cain and Abel, the nature of hell, the concept of god. The now-grown boy speaks of how we descended from Cain, “everything misunderstood and recognized too late.” The seminal experience of the hunt is definitive:
“The Bible has nothing to do with god. The Bible is an account of our waking up, an atavistically dreamed recovery of how we first learned shame in the garden and first considered ourselves different from animals.” Vann’s potent tale is acted out on a primitive landscape where the choices are few, brutal and final. Horror unfolds upon horror, events spiral ever more out of control and the inevitable conflict looms, a clash where victory holds no honor.