Book Quote:

“I just don’t know,”  he said aloud. “Roy, are you awake?”
“God, I just don’t know.”
That was our last communication. I didn’t know, either, and I wanted only to shrink farther down into my sleeping bag. He had a terrific pain in his head that painkillers couldn’t reach, an airiness in his voice that was only becoming more hollow, and other mysteries of despair I didn’t want to see or hear. I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn’t know why. And I didn’t want to know.

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (AUG 15, 2010)

David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide consists of a novella and short stories that are semi-autobiographical. Vann spent his early years in Ketchikan, Alaska where his father had a dental practice. His father sold the practice and bought a fishing boat that he hoped would provide a living. His father invested unwisely and lost a lot of money. On top of that, the IRS was after him for some investments he made in other countries. Vann’s parents divorced when Vann was about five years old because his father was unfaithful. Vann was witness to some horrific fights between his parents. His father was mercurial of mood, likely with manic-depression that appears to have been undiagnosed. After his parent’s divorce, Vann moved to California with his mother and sister. When Vann was thirteen years old, his father asked him to spend a year in Alaska with him. Vann declined. Two weeks later, his father shot himself. This book is Vann’s attempt to get his head around his father’s suicide, along with his own feelings of guilt, shame, anger, denial and fears.

Vann states in an interview that he believes that it is important to read this book in order. The first short story, “Ichthyology” is where the opening quote of this review comes from. In the book, David refers to himself as Roy and his father as Jim. This beautiful and painful story is about the impact of his parent’s divorce on David’s behaviors. He becomes oppositional and vandalizes his neighborhood. No one appears to connect his behaviors with what is happening in his life at the time. The story is told against the backdrop of Roy’s aquarium and a blinded iridescent shark that manages to survive a horrific attack and continues to live, gradually learning to make its way in the tank without bumping into things.

The novella,”Sukkwan Island,” is in two parts. It took my breath away with its wildness, beauty, pain and anguish. In the first part, Roy goes with his father to Sukkwan Island, an uninhabited island in southeast Alaska, where his father has purchased land and a cabin. There, he has to deal with the horrors of his father’s anger, unpreparedness and depression. His father cries most every night and “confesses” to Roy about the mistakes he’s made in his life. Roy doesn’t know what to do. He wants to leave the island but he is afraid of hurting his father. His father ends up taking his life. In part two, Roy walks in and witnesses his father holding a pistol to his head. His father gives Roy the pistol and walks out. Roy takes his own life. The action of suicide and the reactions to it are what give this novella its power and grace. What leads up to suicide or attempted suicide is a psychological study of the human psyche lost in pain and despair, choosing to go into the unknown rather than live another day. I have never read such an achingly painful testimony to grief and survival.

In the short story “Ketchikan,” Roy is a young man of 30 who returns to Ketchikan to try and learn something about his father. Though he is not very successful, he does re-enact some of his rage and anger towards his father by replicating the vandalism of his youth.

This is a book of metaphors, layers, and attempts to build meaning out of nuance and emotion. It is a brilliant book, one that left me feeling raw and numb but also in awe of having read something that will stay with me forever.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (March 16, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Excerpt in The New York Times
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Our two reviews of Caribou Island:

Another book that struggles with a family tragedy:



August 15, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Short Stories, US Northwest

One Response

  1. poornima - January 17, 2011

    Absolutely loved this book! Thanks so much for the recommendation.

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