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Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
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Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

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Reviewed by Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader

I have been very pleased to read David Vann's Legend of a Suicide for it is an unusual book which provides a lot of insight into the painful journeys which have to be taken to come to terms with family tragedy.  The writer comes to this from many angles, much as a historian reviews a variety of sources in an attempt to arrive at a definitive account of what really happened.

The title of this book is interesting.  Clearly it is about suicide, or more specifically a suicide, but why "legend" rather than say, "story" or perhaps "memoir"?  And the main character, Jim Fenn: why is this name so similar to David Vann's own father, James Vann?  In fact we learn from the acknowledgements at the back of this book that David Vann is in fact writing about his father's suicide, and that the stories are fictional but "based on a lot that's true". 
The thing about a legend is that it may or may not be true.  Its something which has achieved an almost mythical status so I think we can say that David Vann's stories will go beyond the mere recounting of facts and will probe into the deeper meaning of his father's death, its long term effects and its outworking in the lives of those he left behind. 
At first this book appears to be a single text, a continuum, but again in the acknowledgements at the back, David Vann thanks his graduate school tutors for helping him see "how the stories might become a book".  And in fact we have here four linked short stories and one novella which together tell a sort of myth about the terrible events which happened to Vann when he was a young boy.
The first story, which is only 10 pages long appears to be a straightforward description of the events leading up to Jim Fenn's death, setting the scene of marital break-up, serious money problems, mid-life crises and mental problem, culminating in a .44 Magnum hand-gun firing into its owner's head.  This may (or may not be) the basic story on which others are built, but straight-away the chronology starts to break down for the next story, "Rhoda" chronicles a short period which the young Roy (perhaps a.k.a. David) spent with his father and his new step-mother.  This story ends with a disturbing scene involving a .22 hand-gun while quail-hunting, which made at least this reader a little jumpy before starting the next story.
The third story, "Legend of Good Men" seems to be a couple of years after Jim Fenn's death when Roy's mother is dating various men.  The men Roy's mother dated after her Roy's father killed himself:
were a lot like circuses that passed through our town.  They'd move in quickly and unpack everything they owned . . . then they'd vanish, and we'd find no sign left, no mention even, as if we'd simply imagined them.
John, Angel, Emmett, Pat, Merril all passed through in this way, and once more, the story is stuffed full of guns and culminates in Roy blowing the windows and doors out of his home in a sudden fit of madness involving two and a half boxes of shells.  Is it a characteristic feature of American books that guns are described in such detail?  We read of .300 Magnums, .22 caliber rifles, Winchester carbines. Ruger .44s etc etc.  Guns are so alien to most British people that while these names are totemic to an American, they mean nothing to us other vague references in American movies. 
I would say the fourth section is the Sukkwan island is the most important section of this book, and forms a substantial novella in itself.  I think we can say that this is how a 15 year old boy gets back at his deceased father, by imagining a horrendous and gruesome set of events, slightly reminiscent of one of Stephen King's stories.  I have no intention of spoiling this section for other people.  Suffice it to say that Roy and his father go so  spend the winter on a remote Alaskan island.  In this section we see the utter irresponsibility of a suicidal father, his disregard for the well-being of those around him, and the terrible ways in which his decisions work out in the lives of others.  It is a painful and shocking read, but also totally compelling.  We read this section and it helps us understand the others - if the son's retribution is so terrible, then the events which provoked it must have been truly traumatic at a level we cannot understand unless we experience them ourselves.
Last section trying to get back to the root causes of his father's situation.  Long after his death, the writer delves into the root causes of his father's disharmony by visiting an Alaskan town he lived in and attempting to re-connect with one of the key figures in his life.  But things are not as expected.  People change and find their own destiny, which seems to be very unconnected with the events they were involved in so long ago.  The writer leaves the town without the resolution he sought, feeling that:
perhaps the tragedies I had imagined for years, the divorce and suicide that I had let shape my life so permanently, had been something else altogether, or at least not as I had imagined.

I hope that writing this book has enabled David Vann to come to terms with the event that shaped him.  The book is certainly an tumultuous journey for his readers and should I hope achieve some status as a novel significant as much for its insights as for its dramatic content

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