Legend of A Suicide by David Vann

I read this a couple of month’s ago and am only just getting around to blogging about it, which you might think a bad sign. It’s not – I’ve simply been waiting to let it settle. But the book hasn’t settled, its stayed active in my mind – almost to the point where I might want to re-read it.

David Vann’s book is certainly worth reading at least once, and, as Lionel Shriver says on the cover of my edition, it is compulsive enough to deprive you of sleep. But for those who like their books complete and neat it will be finally unsatisfying. As a novel this book is like a part-built log cabin where someone has made a fine sturdy staircase and a pierced metal lampshade and warm patchwork quit by hand  but not built one or two of the walls or half the roof. You admire the workmanship of the lovely stuff and you wonder why about the gaps. That’s part of the story, I guess, because clever contemporary writers don’t on the whole go for the complete narrative, a la C19, but I wished it otherwise.

And yet the book worked for me because it is about an unhappy relationship between child and an unsatisfactory parent (one of my specialist areas and one about which I am still gleaning as much info as possible). It is enormously, gruesomely funny – a bonus in what is essentially an emotional horror story. Not, on many counts, one for the squeamish reader.

It’s the story of Roy, still a teenager when his often-satisfactory father commits suicide. Roy replays scenes from their shared experience and creates the legend of a suicide that gives the book its title. Serious and yet crazily playful, the book is deeply  realistic on an emotional  level and as  for the rest… who knows what to believe?

Here, Roy and his father land in a remote Alaskan wilderness  at the start of their  planned year-long boys-together adventure:

You’ll be all right, the pilot said.
Yeh, Roy said.
And I’ll come and check on you now and again.

When Roy’s father returned, he was grinning and trying not to grin, not looking  directly at Roy as they loaded the radio equipment in a watertight box, then the guns in waterproof cases the fishing gear and tools, the first of the canned goods in cases. Then it was listening to the pilot again as his father curved away, leaving a small wake behind him that was white just behind the transom but smoothed out into dark ridges, as if they could disrupt only this small part and at the edge  this place would  swallow itself again in moments. The water was very clear but deep enough even just this far out that Roy couldn’t see bottom. In close along the shore, though, at the edges of reflection, he could make out the glassy shapes beneath the wood and rock.

His father worse a red flannel hunting shirt and grey pants. He wasn’t wearing a hat, though the  air was cooler than Roy had imagined. The sun was bright on his father’s head, shining in his thin hair even from a distance. His father squinted against the morning glare, but still one side of his mouth was turned up in his grin. Roy wanted to join him, to get to land and their new home, but there were two more trips before he could go. They had packs filled with clothing in garbage bags and rain gear and boots, blankets, two lamps, more food and books. Roy had a box of  books just for school. It would be a year of home schooling: math, English, geography, social studies, history, grammar, and eight grade science, which he didn’t know how they’d  do since it  had experiments and thy didn’t have any of the  equipment. His mother had asked his father about this, and his father had not given a clear answer. Roy missed his mother and sister suddenly and  his eyes teared up, but then he saw his father pushing off the gravel beach and returning again and he made himself stop.

When he finally crawled into the boat and let go of the  pontoon, the starkness hit him. It was nothing they had now, and as he watched the plane behind them taxi in a tight circle, then  grind up loud and take off spraying over the water, he felt how long time might be, as if it could be made of air and could press in and stop itself.

Welcome to your new home, his father said, and put his hand on top of  Roy’s head, then his shoulder.

Emotionally astute, intelligent writing is rare. This book is the real deal on that front. David Vann is  a brilliant observer of micro-expressions (see Dad  grinning and trying not to grin?) and an almost cruel watcher of the almost  unnoticeable adult behaviour observed by desperate children. Very, very sad and serious, and yet diabolically funny.

Let me know what you think of it.