David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide has already been widely, and deservedly, praised. It’s a powerful and affecting book, the kind that you feel compelled to immediately recommend to others with an unusual certainty that it will draw in any reader. Its impact is as fierce and direct as the Alaskan landscape in which it is set.
It seems to have been marketed (in Britain at least) as a novel, but is, in fact, a collection of four short stories and a novella. However, the sequential numbering is appropriate as the stories are clearly linked thematically, though they do not tell different parts of the same story. It also helps to know that each story resonates from the real-life suicide of Vann’s father. In particular the short stories add considerably to the impact of the novella. What might have been a weakness – each story revolving around the same event – is turned into a strength.
The first story, ‘Ichthyology’, tells of the breakdown of the narrator, Roy’s, parents, marriage and his father’s attempts to ‘find himself’ by abandoning, not only his family, but his career in dentistry for fishing in Alaska. It contains an example of the father weeping one night while his son sleeps near him, something that will become a prominent feature of the novella, ‘Sukkwan Island’. The story ends with the father’s suicide. The second story, ‘Rhoda’, is about the narrator’s relationship with his father’s new wife. In the third story, ‘A Legend of Good Men’, the narrators tells of the various men that his mother dated after the divorce, and of his own descent into delinquency. All three stories are suffused with violence. In ‘Ichthyology’ the narrator describes the events in his fish tank where “everything in human life was to be found”:
“The silver dollars were slick and merciless and knew how to work as a team. In one quick flash each went for an eye and sucked it out.”
In ‘Rhoda’ he shoots a squirrel while his father and new wife look proudly on:
“I pulled the trigger and saw a chunk of meat fly from him like a small red bird. He seemed to explode. There was the sound of rain through the trees as bits of him fell back to earth.”
In ‘A Legend of Good Men’ he shoots up his own house:
“The sliding glass door in our family room was by far the most beautiful. I blew one small hole through its middle about the size of half a dollar. Everything was absolutely still for a moment, then the glass began to tremble. It rippled and shook its entire length, the glass bending in waves, then shattered into a billion fibres.”
In each case the violence may shock the reader, but not the character. In the last example, the word “beautiful” may equally apply to the glass doors or their destruction.
While these stories all have something to recommend them, the centre-piece of the book is clearly ‘Sukkwan Island’. Roy is thirteen, his father’s second marriage has broken down, and he has decided to spend a year with his son on a remote island off the Alaskan mainland. Initially reluctant, Roy has chosen to go along. Although they have brought supplies with them, they intend to hunt and fish for food, preserving some of this to last them through the winter. From the beginning the signs are not good. The pilot who flies them in comments:
“Most don’t bring their kids with them. And most bring some food.”
Roy’s father, Jim, is also not as prepared as you would expect for someone whose survival is at stake:
“They had brought tools, but it sounded to Roy as if his father were discovering some of this as they went along. The idea that dry wood was not something that his father had thought of ahead of time frightened Roy.”
They struggle to make somewhere to store their winter supplies; a bear breaks into the cabin and destroys much of their food and equipment, including their radio; Jim badly injures himself in a fall. Like any story of survival it is gripping, and made more so by Jim’s mental state. While he attempts to remain positive during the day, at night he weeps, knowing his son can hear him:
“That night, late, his father wept again. He talked to himself in small whispers that sounded like whining…”
Naturally, our understanding is influenced by the preceding stories; however Vann is aware of this and uses it to deliberate effect. The story is divided into two parts and the end of the first contains an event which literally took the breath from me. Obviously, discussion of the story without knowledge of this is impossible, but so rarely have I been as shocked (to the point of reading the sentence again to be sure) by what, after all, is a matter of plot that I don’t feel I can reveal it here. All I can do is echo the many recommendations that the book has already received: not every first book which comes garlanded with praise deserves it, but I believe this one does.