Thursday, 22 October 2009

'A father, after all, is a lot for a thing to be.'

Legend Of A Suicide
by David Vann

As the title suggests this book from David Vann isn't so much a single narrative but a collection of stories (one really a novella) inspired by a single event. The root of this comes from his own life, his father having committed suicide in 1980, an event that was presumably earth-shattering. From those shards Vann has reflected in different ways on the effects of that suicide, particularly on those people left behind in its wake. For the reader there is a slightly unsettling sensation as each story develops; the names of the principal characters remain the same but the circumstances and facts in each case seem to be slightly different - this ensures that the book remains resolutely a piece of fiction rather than a factual exhumation. This fragmented approach is incredibly effective for focusing attention on particular themes and also provides the book as a whole with a truly jaw-dropping shock, slap bang in the middle, which I wouldn't dream of revealing in this review.

Looking quickly at the stories first, Ichthyology shows the choices and decisions Roy witnesses his father make that lead toward his suicide. Whilst his father pursues various ill-advised ventures on the water Roy is living with his mother far away in California. His father's fishing boat (on which he puts the gun to his head) contrasts with the fish tank that Roy keeps at home and the final image of a fly 'mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic' serves to highlight how far those shock waves can travel. Rhoda looks at Roy's relationship with his stepmother, a woman whose unknown quality makes her so intriguing. The eyelid of her right eye is drooped, never opening but also never quite closing, a sight which on closer inspection Roy realises 'made her terribly beautiful.' In A Legend Of Good Men whilst Roy's widowed mother goes through a series of unsuccessful relationships he develops his own relationship with that most American of accessories: the gun. It begins harmlessly enough (if such a thing is possible) but after shooting out street lights and stop signs Roy then breaks into his own house, shooting out windows and doors. Vann turning this cry for attention into something personal as Roy sits on the porch, waiting for the police to arrive, hoping that one of his mother's past suitors will be one of them.

Roy is 30 years old in Ketchikan where he returns to 'the place my dead father had first gone astray, the place where this father and his suicide and his cheating and his lies and my pity for him, also, might be put to rest.' What he actually hopes to do is meet the woman with whom his father had had an affair, 'to talk with her and maybe tell her who I was'. His life having been so shaped by this one event, or to be more accurate the stories surrounding the event, the narrative he has made for himself, what he is looking for is some kind of revenge. What though, if things are not as he has imagined.

The real act of revenge though comes in Sukkwan Island, the novella at the centre of this book. It comes in two parts; the first seen from Roy's point of view, the second his father Jim's. In an attempt at bonding Jim takes Roy with him to this remote island in Alaska where he has a house. Vann's descriptive prose is extraordinary in this section, creating the vast impenetrable wilderness that surrounds them, the harsh weather, the constant threat of danger from both the elements and wildlife with whom they share the island. Whilst the house in its dilapidated state presents the first challenge for father and son the real danger to them both is the mental state of Roy's suicidal father. Ill prepared and irresponsible, incapable of caring for himself let alone another, and exposed in this setting to the harshest possible challenges there is something primal about the atmosphere which reminded me of Cormac McCarthy amongst others and had me gripped from the first page to the last.

Over the next two days, in the rain, they cut the poles for the roof and a smaller second roof. They sawed the lengths and stripped off the branches with a hatchet, Roy watching this father with his grim unshaven face when he worked, the cold rain dripping off the end of his nose. He seemed as solid then as a figure carved from stone, and all his thoughts as immutable, and Roy could not reconcile this father with the other, the one who wept and despaired and had nothing about him that could last. Though Roy had memory, it seemed nonetheless that whatever father he was with at the time was the only father that could be, as if each in its time could burn away the others completely.

There is something so sad about the lack of connection between father and son, not just in this section but throughout the book. On Sukkwan Island Roy realises that this trip, designed to throw the two of them closer together, feels no different from any of their previous vacations and he wonders whether that will change. So as not to ruin anything I will say no more about a story which is as powerful as anything I have read this year, the year before that and possibly ever and hope that that is enough to pique your interest to find out why.


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