Legend of a Suicide

Legend of a Suicide

Book rating: 05 Paperback

By (author) David Vann

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  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Format: Paperback | 240 pages
  • Dimensions: 128mm x 196mm x 18mm | 181g
  • Publication date: 1 November 2009
  • Publication City/Country: London
  • ISBN 10: 0141043784
  • ISBN 13: 9780141043784
  • Illustrations note: maps
  • Sales rank: 33,183

Product description

Roy is still young when his father, a failed dentist and hapless fisherman, puts a .44 magnum to his head and commits suicide on the deck of his beloved boat. Throughout his life, Roy returns to that moment, gripped by its memory and the shadow it casts over his small-town boyhood, describing with poignant, mercurial wit his parents' woeful marriage and inevitable divorce, their kindnesses and weaknesses, the absurd and comic turning-points of his past. Finally, in "Legend of a Suicide", Roy lays his father's ghost to rest. But not before he exacts a gruelling, exhilarating revenge. Revolving around a fatally misconceived adventure deep in the wilderness of Alaska, this is a remarkably tender story of survival and disillusioned love.

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Author information

David Vann was born on Adak Island, Alaska and spent his childhood in Ketchikan. A contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Men's Journal, Outside and National Geographic Adventure, he is author of the best-selling memoir A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea and a forthcoming novel, Caribou Island. He has been a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a Wallace Stegner Fellow, taught at Stanford and Cornell, and is currently a professor at the University of San Francisco. Legend of a Suicide won the 2007 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

Customer reviews

By Tom Cunliffe 20 Oct 2009 5

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 must be taken to come to terms with the tragedies that can hit families and leave them reeling for years to come.

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.

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.

Review quote

An extraordinary, ground-breaking piece of fiction ... Nothing quite like this book has been written before Alex Linklater, Observer A richly gifted newcomer Sunday Times Books for 2009 Vann uses startling powers of observation to create strong characters, tense scenes and genuine surprises Publishers' Weekly Oh my god, Legend of a Suicide just bowled me over completely. It is such a tender, heartbreaking, breathtaking, horrifying and insanely compelling read that when I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and round again. I implore anyone with functioning eyes to read this book Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine So hard to put down that I am thinking of suing David Vann for several hours of lost sleep Lionel Shriver This book squeezes more life out of the first hundred pages than most books could manage in a thousand, which is pretty impressive, considering it's a book about death Ross Raisin, author of God's Own Country In his portrayal of a young son's love for his lost father David Vann has created a stunning work of fiction: surprising, beautiful and intensely moving Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers One of the most gripping debuts I've ever read Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan Impossible to put down and equally impossible to forget San Francisco Chronicle An American classic ... harrowing but beautifully wrought ... prose as clear and bracing as a mountain stream Sunday Times One jaw-droppingly powerful, courageous and original fiction debut...As a 10th work of fiction this would be impressive; as a debut, it is remarkable Sunday Telegraph Hands down the best fictional debut we have read this year Dazed & Confused For the imagery alone and for the sentences, the book would be a treasure, but the story it tells - the story of the suicide of the author's father - has an immediacy and sharpness made all the more special by the tone of distance in the narrative and the beauty of the writing Colm Toibin, Observer books of the year David Vann's Legend of a Suicide is brave, fantastically well written, and completely defies categorisation Julie Myerson, Daily Telegraph books of the year