Sometimes I buy books that end up languishing in The Pile only to be shifted to a bookshelf and forgotten about, even though they have never been read. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann is one such book. I bought it last spring and then shortly afterwards moved house and the book was packed away. I rediscovered it when unpacking all the boxes of books for my library and read it last week.
The book is made up of five short stories and a novella, all set in Ketchikan in Alaska and the environs provide much of the atmosphere in the stories. Alaska is a place where life is hard, the weather is unforgiving, and men must be men in order to survive. The central relationship in the book is between Roy Fenn and and his father Jim. Jim idolises frontiersmen, imagining a life where the quest for survival in a brutal environment is so all encompassing that it leaves little room for other thoughts. Jim feels like a failure – he has two failed marriages and two failed careers in his past – and his depression seems to be crippling him. He believes that the possibilities that Alaska holds, living in a remote cabin on a deserted island and depending on one’s wits and resources, will perhaps make a man out of him, distract him from the self-loathing that seems to be plaguing him. Roy is a young boy, out of his depth in this environment and completely unable to connect with his father.
There is much to admire about Vann’s writing. His prose is clear and simple and certainly owes a debt to both Hemingway and Proulx. There is an enormous surprise half-way through the novella (so much so that I audibly gasped while reading it on the DART and the man across from me laughed!) which leaves the reader spinning and desperate to find out what happens. Vann has confirmed in interviews that much of the book is based on events in his own life. I think he has successfully managed to marry fact, fiction and fantasy to come up with a beautiful and memorable book.