Thursday 31 March 2011

'When does it end?'

A Mile Down
by David Vann

David Vann has had more firsts than most authors. His first novel, Caribou Island, might have been considered his second if the book that came before it, Legend Of A Suicide, hadn't been packaged as a collection of short stories in the US. His very first book however was this non-fiction title published by Thunder's Mouth Press, a memoir detailing his disastrous career as a charter-boat captain. There's a danger in delving into a writer's back-catalogue, especially one who has made such a splash with his first (whichever one that was) forays into fiction. There's no doubt that this memoir doesn't match the accomplishment of the writing in either of his books since, in fact in many ways it seems like an entirely different writer altogether, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a compelling read, the literary equivalent of rubbernecking at the scene of an accident, so consistently awful is Vann's luck in his pursuit of the American Dream.

Vann was working as a lecturer at Stanford, teaching creative writing, but unsure of achieving tenure when he decided to set up a business providing educational courses on a chartered boat. The success of his initial forays led him to look at purchasing a larger boat and to purse his dream of achieving the kind of financial independence and satisfaction that had eluded his father. For yet again, this is a book tainted by the impact of that one event which anyone who has read Vann before will know about.

My father killed himself when I was thirteen, so my knowledge of him is limited. No one can tell me exactly why he decided to quit his dental practice and build a commercial fishing boat or what he felt when he had to sell the boat and return to dentistry.
So as we read about the trials endured by that dentist's son (a touching photo of the two of them on a fishing trip appears on the first page) both he and we cannot help but compare the two men's experience and we wonder how close this catalogue of errors came to pushing the son to emulate the father's final act. And it really is problem after problem. It is quite staggering how many things go wrong, and perhaps because of the book's title(and cover), knowing that it will end in complete failure, you can't help but feel that the plan was doomed to failure from the start. It is whilst in Bodrum, Turkey that Vann sees the 90ft steel hull upon which he can see himself building his dream boat. His contact there Seref, 'pronounced like the good guy in one of your westerns,' seems to be able to promise everything that Vann wants from his boat and with significant savings in cost compared to other sites. That said, the amounts of money required are staggering, tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised from creditors and investors but Vann always seems to be juggling debts, credit cards and favours in his quest to keep his head literally above water.

Nothing it seems is immune from the possibility of failure. There are significant problems with the boat's construction (made worse by the constant language barrier in Turkey) which return again and again, crooked bureaucrats, freak weather conditions, unhelpful and potentially criminal fellow mariners, poor rescue efforts and of course the constant battle against sleep deprivation, fatigue and falling spirits. Much later in the book Vann admits that 'A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.' As a friend of his helpfully points out when he asks when it ends: "It never ends, David. It's a boat." That peril is so constant that the book is an exhausting read at times; sometimes in a good way - there is something undeniably exciting in reading about near-death experiences; sometimes less so, as when we go into the detail of finances or boat technical specifications. Anyone coming to this book from Vann's fiction might be a little disappointed by the prose, there is none of the control or craft that you'll find in the two books that come after it, he has certainly become a much better writer in recent years but there is plenty to fascinate in the story itself and in particular with what this experience helps Vann to learn about himself and, by extension, his father.

Anyone setting up their own business cannot help but see that business as an extension of themselves, its failures or successes a measure of personal achievement. Having been a high-achieving, award-winning student it's possible that this was the first time Vann had experienced any real failure in the goals he had set himself. When the person you believe yourself to be is challenged then a natural reaction is fear.

And I knew my father had felt this same fear, of becoming something other than what he had always imagined himself to be. I wondered if this was part of what had made suicide begin to seem reasonable.

Vann's dogged pursuit of that dream in the face of such hardship leads us and eventually he himself to question whether he might be 'doing all of this for unconscious reasons, trying to relive my father's life, for instance, or testing whether I'd kill myself as he had if things got bad enough.' And this is a test that he comes through, never contemplating ending it all no matter how hard things become. In fact having reached his first nadir (oh yes, things don't just go totally wrong once) and somehow finding in himself the determination to carry on regardless he manages to locate something positive in his father's own actions.

What I enjoyed most was the new portrait of my father that was emerging. For at least fifteen years after his suicide, I had been very angry at him, hating him for abandoning me and for killing himself in such a dirty, shameful way, blowing his own head off. But now, after my bankruptcy and all of my other smaller frustrations and failures in this business, I could see a man struggling, a man who had been almost exactly my age, who had shared a similar dream of wanting to be able to invent his own life, instead of going every day to a job he hated, a man drawn to the same frontier.

But the fact remains that Vann's father did put that gun to his head and this journey by his son which he had hoped would be 'about how everything had worked out after it had seemed all was lost' is actually about how Vann manages to do what his father could not and 'after ten years of insomnia and fifteen years of being fairly sure I was doomed to kill myself,' finally, finally escape his legacy.


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