Don’t ask if I liked David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. I “like” pizza; I like a glass of port while cooking dinner; I like the crackling of a fire on a cold evening. Legend of a Suicide produces not the warm flames safely contained within a hearth; it roars through the soul in a conflagration of pain. Did I like Legend of a Suicide? No. This is not an indictment; it is, rather, an acknowledgment that the jagged edge of a truth cut from grief is not likable. Not likable, but essential.
When Vann was 13 years old, his father committed suicide. In an essay appended to Legend of a Suicide Vann reveals that he had, sensing the instability of his father’s world, declined to move to Fairbanks, Alaska to live with his father for his eighth grade year. Two weeks later, while on the phone with Vann’s stepmother, James Vann shot himself in the head.
For several years, David Vann told people that his father had died of cancer. At night, with a shotgun inherited from his father, the straight-A student roamed the neighborhood, shooting out streetlights. Vann could have followed the contemporary trend and explored this event in memoir; he certainly has ample material. However, with Legend of a Suicide Vann chose the belief that truth sometimes reveals itself best through fiction, and instead crafted a set of stories that plunge into the vortex of grief, guilt, and inevitability.
Vann’s stories are blatantly autobiographical, following a young man, Roy Fenn, through the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, his dentist father’s downward spiral, and the madness into which a deepening depression can pull bystanders. The stories are autobiographical – except when they are not. While the first three stories, “Icthyology,” “Rhoda,” and “A Legend of Good Men” appear to roughly parallel some of the events of Vann’s own life, the central story, “Sukkwan Island,” everts the saga, exposing the viscera of grief. “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue” return the storyline to the known “reality.” However, we cannot forget the truth that “Sukkwan Island” eviscerated, the truth that a suicide kills more than the person whose finger pulled the trigger.
Vann’s writing blends beauty and horror so perfectly that breath becomes impossible at points; the tension of each moment is so subtly built that the reader hangs from a fraying rope, the relief so great as to almost be a disappointment when the rope does not break and a fish tank is only a fish tank. The last strands snap later, when we feel that we may be safe, that we may emerge only a little bruised and cut. When the rope does break, the fall is completely unexpected as Vann pulls us over the cliff into incomprehensible pain.
First, the beauty:
When the pickle slices had settled more, they rocked like sleeping fish just above the pink and blue gravel, and the real fish rocked silently beside them, as if in gentle groves of eelgrass and sunken lily pads. The image was beautiful, and in that moment of beauty I strained forward.
The tension produced in this scene where the child Roy sneaks out of his fighting parents’ home in the night, and steals into a neighbor’s home to watch the fish in their tanks is indescribable and incomprehensible. The beauty of the image produced by the floating fish is so exquisite that it seems at that moment that the fish must die, and that that event would, however absurdly, be the greatest tragedy.
When tragedy strikes in this first story, it does so almost as an afterthought. The narrator begins the paragraph with a matter-of-fact cataloging of the steps toward his father’s downfall.
My father ranged farther and farther that next year in the Osprey … He began to sport-fish off the wide, high stern, and one day caught several large salmon, which he gutted on the spot. With the return to port and sale of the failed Osprey imminent … with the IRS closing in, and with no further flights imagined, he took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon.
As befitting the legends of the title, natural elements are given a subtle weight that lends them almost supernatural importance. Fish are sacrificed as part of the natural order of things, yet seem to be almost revered by Roy. In “Sukkwan Island” the cabin is destroyed by a postulated bear, yet the bear is not seen nor is it ever clear that the bear that is later shot was the culprit.
Through the memoir-like voice of Roy Fenn, David Vann has crafted a set of stories that dig more deeply into the truth of tragedy than any memoir could ever reach. Legend of a Suicide is at points nearly unbearable to read, the mind turns away from the pain that pushes one toward the margins of sanity. However, it was impossible to leave the stories alone. When it was returned to my purse for a ‘break’, I could feel the pull of the narrative. Though searing, the fire of Vann’s writing burns clean, clearing out the necrotic pockets formed by a tragedy.
Did I like the book; was it ‘enjoyable?’ No. Did I need it? Absolutely. Did it change me? Yes.