David Vann: Legend Of A Suicide

In Ichthyology, the opening story of David Vann’s collection, Legend Of A Suicide (2008), there appears a fly that gets stuck in a fishtank and, in its panic, sends off a series of ripples that highlight his predicament. It’s a visible showing from the insect and, having little consciousness, it can’t fight instinct in making its panic known. Humans differ, however, and the troubled father of Roy Fenn was not going to be found flapping helplessly in the water. Instead he took himself onto the deck of his boat and, with his .44 Magnum, shot himself. It’s an act that made its own ripples, affecting others, and the mystery around that suicide forms the basis for this book.

It’s hard not to see Roy as a loose version of Vann, whose own father commited suicide in 1980. Of the six stories making the collection, five of them are narrated by an adult Roy, casting his mind back to growing up in the empty expanses of Alaska, where life seemed to consist of nothing more than riffs on guns and fishing.

While the stories are independent of each other, they are deeply anchored in the life of Jim Fenn. The portrait painted is of an impenetrable man with “neither eyes nor ears for matters below the surface”, a weakness for women, and a history of failed investments. In Rhoda, where we meet his second wife – Roy’s stepmother – we are shown how Jim acts, storing his concerns without seeking to tackle them, when he worries that Rhoda may leave him:

“She’s not going to leave,” I said.

My father squinted looking out over the brush on either side distrustfully. “I wish I could believe that.”

“You can,” I said. “She told me she wouldn’t.”

My father stopped hiking and looked at me then as if I were someone entirely new to him. “She told you?”


“But why?”

“I asked her.”

Such an inability to communicate appears again and again throughout the book and there’s no doubt this has partly led to his suicide. Without a shoulder to lean on and an ear to hear him out we rarely get a sense of his thoughts and feelings, all of which allows Roy to build up a mythology around his father that goes some way toward the overall title of the book.

In the third story, A Legend Of Good Men we drop in on Roy’s mother after his father’s death where there’s little stability in her love life —

The men she dated then were a lot like the circuses that passed through our town. They’d move in quickly and unpack everything they owned, as if they’d come to stay. They’d tempt us with brightly colored objects — floweres, balloons, remote-controlled race cars — perform tricks with their beards and hands, call us funny names like snip, my little squash plant, ding-dong, and even apple pie, and yell their stories at us day and night. Then they’d vanish, and we’d find no sign left, no mention even, as if we’d simply imagined them.

and we see the breadth of unsuitable father figures that, like Jim Fenn, just disappear one day without a goodbye. Guns abound here, referenced in an obsessive way — “…a Browning .22-caliber rifle, a .30-.30 Winchester carbine, a .300 Winchester Magnum with scope…” — and when Roy breaks into his own house, there’s an eerie dissonance whereby he describes it as if it’s the first time he’s seen it. It’s a tactic that works well to try and understand different perspectives, something which the book parallels on the whole.

The writing in Legend Of A Suicide is almost always controlled. Vann keeps a tight rein on his prose, careful not to let it fly off too far from the polished sparsity that characterises it, and this sometimes creates a cold distance between the narration and the recounted events. However, when it comes to the Alaskan landscape, he allows himself the occasional indulgence, offering up delightful passages, such as in later story Ketchikan. where Roy returns to meet someone from his father’s past:

At thirty, I rode the Alaskan ferry past the coastline of British Columbia, past white-ringed islands, forests extending beyond the horizon, gulls and bald eagles, porpoises, whales, all in close, rode past sunsets over the open ocean, lighthouses, small fishing villages, into Alaskan waters where mountains sloped steeply upward out of fjords, and on, to the town of my childhood, strung narrowly along the waterfront, drenched perpetually on mist, the place of ghosts, I felt, the place where 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 finally be put to rest: Ketchikan.

Interestingly, the stories that make up the book would feel of little importance if it weren’t for the centrepiece, the novella Sukkwan Island which drops the first person for third and tells us of a time where Roy and his father headed out to the wilderness for a year. Ill-equipped for the experience, but too stubborn to call an end to the endeavour, we regularly see the closed off personality of Jim Fenn break down into late night bouts of tears as he confesses his inadequacies to his son.

God, I felt bad. I felt sick all the time. But I kept doing it. And the thing is, even after seeing all that that did, and all it destroyed, I don’t know for sure that I’d act any differently if I had the chance again. The thing is, something about me is not right. I just can’t do the right thing and be who I’m supposed to be. Something about me won’t let me do that.

This novella is the best thing about the collection as it shows that Vann is capable, after a few reflective stories, of pacing his writing, and the drama created from its limited cast shows much to commend. What’s particularly special is that it goes some way toward ensuring that Jim Fenn, as a man, remains ungraspable. As Vann tries to unlock aspects of Fenn’s personality he does so in a way that opens up contradictions between the stories, slight differences that go some way to producing the myth behind the man rather than the other way around.

For the author it must have been a therapeutic experience to tackle the real suicide that underlies this fictional representation and the slightly maddening way that he comes at the same subject repeatedly, yet in unusual ways, ensures that the reader is given a window into the confusion. “Memories are infinitely richer than their origins” we are told at one point and in the end these private memories are what keeps the legend of Jim Fenn going, as answers are never conducive to keeping mysteries alive.

November 9, 2009

8 responses to David Vann: Legend Of A Suicide

  1. steffee said:

    I’m glad you linked to this on facebook; I always forget to check and still don’t understand feeds and whatnot.

    Unrelated nonsense aside, then… The cover looks like chick-lit. It took me all the way up to the “God, I felt bad.” beginning of your final quoted passage (did you ever say how to quote?) to let go of that, and then I thought that the writing style reminded me very much of your own.

    I no longer think being ungraspable is an attractive quality.

    Since this is already a very disjointed and somewhat pointless comment, I’ll just add that 1st person and 3rd person narrators in the same anthology is rather impressive.

    Suicide? Hmmm.

  2. Stewart said:

    I don’t know how this could be mistaken for chicklit, steffee. There’s not a handbag, pair of heels, or cappuccino in sight. Plus, the title ain’t too shopaholic.

  3. kimbofo said:

    This is a wonderful review. I read the book a month or so ago, and I’m still thinking about the horrors of Sukkwan Island and don’t think I will ever look at a sleeping bag the same way again.

  4. tolmsted said:

    I can’t wait to read this book. I’ve been listening to a lot of interviews with the artist on my ipod (podcasts mostly from the UK) and there were a couple things you might be interested in –

    The book is definitely autobiographical. It took the author 10 years to write and he chose fiction mainly because of the fact he had so few hard facts – just lots of hearsay as to what happened.

    Also, the UK edition is not published as short stories. It was published as a single novel – which the author prefers but admits can be confusing to some readers because of the way it jumps around. He actually asked the US publisher not to put “short stories” on the cover of that edition, even if it was broken down as short stories inside. He also discussed how the disorienting feeling caused by the jumping around in the narrative could be a good thing and in fact add to the text. While I knew that covers differed between countries, I was shocked to find out that format could as well.

  5. Stewart said:

    The book is definitely autobiographical.

    Hi tolmsted. I knew it was autobiographical, in a way. The acknowledgements pretty much explains it when Vann says:

    Finally, I must thank my family, because it was an uncomfortable topic I was writing about – my father’s suicide – and there’s exposure in these stories. They’re fictional, but based on a lot that’s true.

    I don’t agree with the notion of the book being a novel; as far as I’m concerned it’s five short stories and a novella. This in much the same way that I don’t see Jim Crace’s Continent as anything more than short stories, even if it did win the Whitbread First Novel Prize.

  6. Kerry said:

    This is a very difficult and dark subject, but the book sounds fascinating. I enjoy when a particular fact situation is approached from various angles. I like the “myth of the man” aspect of the work. Plus, the quotes are excellent. My urgent TBR is already pretty high, but I am keeping this in mind. Great review of a book that I otherwise would have missed. Thanks.

  7. Great review of this book Stewart. I read this at the end of 2009 and I still think about it, particularily the novella. Its one of those books that I almost didnt read because of the ripples of hype but I am so, so glad that I did. Remarkable book.

  8. 1streading said:

    Great review. I also read this at the end of last year. I suspect that the decision to market it as a novel in the UK is partly a commercial one, however, I agree that the stories add to the power of the novella – as does the autobiographical element. It would be quite difficult to disentangle these,and interesting to read the novella in isolation. Which I can’t do now.

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