David Mann’s new novel “Goat Mountain” (Harper, $25.99) is not for those who have no stomach for killing. “The act of killing might even be the act that creates god,” declares the narrator, now a grown man with memories of a childhood hunting trip gone fatal.
The setting is a 640-acre ranch in Northern California. Here the artist reaches perfection, capturing in minute detail the landscape, the sounds and the smells of this fairly forbidding and dangerous landscape. The hard rock surfaces, the scruff, the sparse woodlands and the rare waterways are all accurately depicted. The coldness and dampness of the night is realistic, as is the unforgiving baking sun of the afternoon.
To this setting comes a band of deer hunters: a grandfather, a father, an 11-year-old boy (the narrator) and Tom, an old family friend who serves as cook. The group aims for the boy to kill his first buck, a family ritual for generations.
Everything changes when the father spots a poacher in an orange vest sitting on a cliff. The father aims his rifle, putting the poacher squarely in the sights, and offers his son a chance to see. No one anticipated what happens next. The boy fires and the shot kills on contact.
Eventually they retrieve the body and truss it up like a deer in their hunting camp. Then they continue their hunt, meantime debating what to do with the body and about the death. The dark conversations often turn violent, as grandfather beats father, tries to kill grandson and Tom threatens to seek the authorities and report the crime.
Though fearful, the boy seems unrepentant for the killing. Eventually he shoots his buck, only to be abandoned miles from camp by the rest of the party. Overnight he gradually hacks the body apart, dragging parts with him, finally arriving back at camp with only the head and antlers, which he hangs next to the man’s body.
Acting decisively at last, his father drags both the body and his son to the high meadow to bury the man. The boy is ordered to dig a grave but cannot penetrate the rock. The father finally sends the torn body sailing off the cliffs.
The entire scene descends into madness when father and son return to camp. Tom has left. The grandfather curses his son and still wants to kill the grandson and also Tom, whom he knows is going to report to police.
The entire story is told with biblical images and wild dreams befitting the insanity of the actions. Told in terse sentences, biting and rapid fire, the language adds to and builds the tension of the story.
This is not easy reading. The tale could have profited from being reduced to a short story instead of being novel length. After awhile, the endless rantings of the men grew tiring and the theological arguments sounded artificial.