"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 to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair."
David Vann’s Caribou Island is a bleak novel. The setting in Alaska is bleak, the marriage that is depicted is even bleaker, and the way the novel ends is about as bleak as bleak gets. Why would anyone write such a novel? Why would anyone want to read it?
Caribou Island is the story of a disintegrating marriage, one that has been in a meltdown ever since it began thirty years ago. Marriage is such a strange institution that for one who has been married as long as I have, such a story, as bleak as it is, cannot help but be read. And when it is written with the power Vann brings to it, a power that is constant and, at times, quite beautiful, it is impossible to turn away.
The novel centers around the relationship between Gary and Irene, both in their mid-fifties, both retired now, both disappointed in each other and in their life together. They do their best to get by in a rustic cabin at the end of a dirt road on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. Caribou Island is a small, uninhabited island in a lake, not far from their home.
Gary is not happy there, he is not content anywhere really. “He had lived almost his entire adult life in exile.” He had given up on his dissertation in California, married Irene, who was “safe,” and together they had moved to Alaska where he turned to fishing and boat building and she became a teacher.
Irene had never grown accustomed to living there, it never felt like home. “A strange time in life, her children gone, her work taken away, only Gary left and not the Gary she began with.” She knows she should have left him long ago, that their marriage was a mistake, but it has taken her too long to recognize this and now it is too late.
The novel opens as Gary decides to build a small, cabin on Caribou Island. He has no blueprints, no equipment other than a hammer and saw, no one other than Irene to help him, nothing other than yet another crazy, romantic obsession. It is late in the season, winter is coming on, and yet he forges ahead, overloads his barge with logs, a few tools, and sets out with Irene in a driving, icy rain storm for Caribou Island.
As they reach the island, following an early accident that sends water streaming into the barge, Irene thinks, “If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things can could get, this was a good place for it.” And things do get worse and then a great deal worse as Gary and Irene haul, saw and hammer the logs together, hammer accusations and resentments into each other while they build “Gary’s idiot project.” Nothing fits right, not the logs, not their cramped conditions on the island, and above all not their marriage.
Gary thinks, “And maybe now was finally the time to let their marriage die. It might be better for both of them. A thing ill-conceived from the start, something that had made both their lives smaller.” Irene muses, “…you can choose who you’ll be with, but you can’t choose who they’ll become.”
Winter is closing in. The temperature plummets. The rain is ceaseless. Snow begins to fall. The cabin is full of leaks. There is no heat, a dirt floor, and a nearby outhouse. And yet the momentum of Vann’s writing carries you on.
Yes, Gary was finally alone in the wilderness. This is what he wanted. And he had built his cabin of sorts. He was never bothered by the fact that it was never Irene’s dream too.
“This was without doubt the ugliest cabin he had ever seen, a thing misunderstood and badly constructed from beginning to end. The outward shape of how he had lived his life, but not the outward shape of who he could have been. That truer form had been lost, had never happened but he didn’t feel sad any longer, or angry, really. He understood now that it just was.”
Dread mounts, the signs become ominous, Irene disappears into the forest, and the novel comes to a horrible end.