That night, late, his father wept again. He talked to himself in small whispers that sounded like whining as he cried and Roy couldn’t make out what he said or fathom what his father’s pain was or where it came from. The things his father said to himself only made him weep harder, as if he were driving himself on. He would grow quiet and then tell himself another thing and whine and sob again. Roy didn’t want to hear it. It frightened and disabled him and he had no way of acknowledging it, now or during the day. He couldn’t sleep until after his father had ceased and fallen away himself.
– From the novella, Sukkwan Island.
It could only be good if Lorrie Moore selects your book for the New Yorker Book Club: “…the writing in these stories, informed by both the empirical and the lyrical, is heart-wrenching and gorgeous and its several voices are done indelibly and with unwavering authority.” Icing on the blurb-tapestry cake at the back of the book, listing all of its accomplishments–the awards, the praise from big, Big Names.
But I approached Legend of a Suicide, the debut collection of interlocking short stories by David Vann, with more than a little trepidation. Trepidation, wariness, caution. Oh, I trust La Lorrie and the dozen or so enumerated accolades. And seeing the cover around the web, hearing snippets of its merit from bloggers and reviewers, I was intrigued, yes–short stories about loss, seemed right up my alley. [I am grief-seeking that way.] But I have always been skittish about hype–commercial or literary, earned or otherwise. [I am strange that way.] What if I didn’t like it? What if I start doubting my ability to recognize what is a good book for me, and what isn’t? What if I’ll never trust a La Lorrie recommendation again?
But the dread evaporated soon enough. I loved David Vann’s stories. A dignified kind of love for a dignified collection. The stories would not make you squeal, they do not make you want to run around to press the book into some unsuspecting stranger’s hands. No, the stories make you pause. They make you gasp. You’ll be flinching after every several pages, because there’s just so much unabashed honesty in them, and they’re delivered in such a direct, matter-of-fact voice. My father killed himself. This is what happened. This is what could have happened. This is what I sometimes wish would happen. Still, my father killed himself. The stories are brave–there’s no doubt about their affective quality–but I marveled at the technicalities, the form, the craft. How Vann handled the perils and potholes of fiction to deliver basic truths about pain and loss and that gray area between that fresh hurt and attempts at moving on.
Know, though, that the love between this book and I wasn’t instantaneous. My notes for the first story, “Ichthyology,” said, An okay story. But I have an odd trust in this book. Vann was laying down the foundation, introducing us to his characters, roughly sketching how much sadness was waiting for us–so subtle, you really wouldn’t know it. This was the calm before the storm even before we had any idea of the storm. The stories get more solid–the characters become people, they’ve got lives now and not just anecdotes. They stopped being hazy impressions in my head.
In “Rhoda,” Roy meets his father’s new wife, and there was a palpable shifting of the way I approached the novel. Meaning, I gots teh confusedz. I already got the feel that this was a novel in stories. Or a short story collection. Or a memoir. Or reportage bordered by craft and style. These impressions keep changing. There’s a blurring of what is “true,” and which fact belongs to which reality.
I don’t think it’s a bleak book. Okay, fine, there are a lot of horrific and incredibly heart-wrenching events that occur between the pages, but that’s not what strictly what this is. The narrator-protagonist, Roy Fenn, frequently appears as a teenager in the stories. Vann doesn’t make him appear as though he was defined only by his sorrow. There is the occasional sliver of humor.
John Laine had not meant to shoot me. He was dating my mother and was trying to win my favor.
It’s in the story “A Legend of Good Men” that I found a lot of poignant and quiet moments. It’s what life is like in the aftermath of Jim’s [the father’s suicide,] and details the handful of men that Roy’s mother went out with. John Laine, the man who had not meant to shoot Roy one disastrous hunting trip is the best of these good men. But he was not meant to stay:
When my mother finally broke up with John, on that same couch as I hovered in the kitchen, peeking through the louvered doors, John said, “Okay,” and kept holding her hand. Without a fight, my mother wasn’t sure what to do. My father had wronged her in concrete ways that could be yelled about. With y father, there had been the possibility of righteousness. But with John, for both us, there was only the ache of knowing how much we had wanted him to stay.
The novella “Sukkwan Island” is where Vann’s intentions get clearer–but are then turned around on its toes. Roy and his father spend a year, together, in the Alaskan wilds. Both are underequipped, underqualified. Jim simply wants something–he’s falling apart, and there’s a struggle between allowing himself to fall apart, and allowing himself to believe that being a father could save him from the fate he’s almost certain is set in stone for him. Jim doesn’t want to live. And this frightens Roy. But, most of all, Roy cannot comprehend this. Realistically, the pain of others makes him miserable in the most visceral way: It is such a hassling thing to this boy. Why is he with his father? What about his mother and his sister? What about his friends? What about him?
Enter one of the scenes that had me putting the book down to blink back tears that I was sure would come, but couldn’t–they were cowering somewhere deep inside me. The scene that I had to read over and over again, because I could not make sense of it. The scene that had me looking for something to anchor on, someone to wail at, “Why did this happen?”
It’s at the end of the first part of “Sukkwan Island”–the novella is divided in two–that it just hit me. “It” being that scene I was reading, and also an inkling of what was going through Vann’s authorial noggin while he was crafting these stories. Legend of a Suicide is a collection of variations on his father’s death. They’re tales that painstakingly recreate the mythology of Father and the depression that took him. All this was an attempt to put in the context of myth-making and fiction what Vann himself had gone through–to make sense, to understand. These are what-ifs, and they’re almost always sinister. And brave with the attempts.
Brave, come to think of it, is the best word I can use to describe David Vann and his pseudo-fictions. When tragedy strikes, so much is taken from you, and whatever part of your soul that is, it’s often taken by force. But with the decision to commit the tragedy to paper, to defamiliarize, to return, to transpose, to make new–it takes a lot too. And the more difficult thing is: With every piece of you that is taken, constraints of the craft, reality, the whole world outside of you, all of them are fighting to get in inside you as well. How to address the truth? How to address the darknesses that have constantly plagued you? How to turn them into monsters as real to the reader? How to escape with the least damage?
I love this collection. It’s brave, it’s beautiful. I know those are tired, abused words. But, as David Vann’s stories attest, even what has been pained and burdened for so long can return to what is pure–and if what has been lost cannot be found, there’d always be some grand reminder that doesn’t have to fill us with sorrow.