Legend of a Suicide: Stories (P.S.)
by David Vann
Reviewed by Amy Halloran
(Editor's note: This review originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. It is republished here to mark this title's new appearance in paperback.)
A collection of linked short stories studded with a dazzling novella, David Vann's Legend of a Suicide carries the reader through harsh, brightly detailed worlds. While the writing style is realistic, Vann's descriptions are luxuriously imagined and confidently stray from the real, as in this example from "A Legend of Good Men": "I began to imagine that all men were in costume, that somewhere down each of their backs was a zipper. Then it occurred to me that someday I would be a man, also, and I wondered about the zipper thing."
"Sukkwan Island," the novella, begins with an equally compelling creation story presented by Jim, the father of the collection's main narrator: "Then man came, and he hunched up around the edges of the world hairy and stupid and weak, and he multiplied and grew so numerous and twisted and murderous with waiting that the edges of the world began to warp. The edges bent and curved down slowly..." Thus we enter Jim and his thirteen-year-old son Roy's adventure as they embark on a proposed year-long journey to the rainforest. The project is contrived by Jim to solve his social problems and anchor an erratic private and professional life, and the narration takes two sections, one from the point of view of each character.
The thoughts and feelings of both father and son, draped in the unfriendly landscape they explore, are worded and delivered with nearly spot-on emotional precision. The cumulative effect of this novella is so powerful, in fact, that by comparison the two closing stories that follow it seem weak. However, perhaps "Ketchikan" and "The Higher Blue," in which Roy returns to Alaska as an adult to confront the absence of his father, falter not just because of their placement, but because they cover material that is less filtered by time. The author has woven a terrific magic throughout much of the book, but more distance may be needed to develop a compelling fictional representation of his adult struggles to understand his father.
Of course, no matter how far away Vann is from the feelings that surround his father's death by suicide, there is a chance that the matter will seem unresolved. Yet maybe, too, fiction is an inadequate vehicle for the author's intentions; the ambiguity in the last stories might be better pursued in nonfiction, as readers of memoir may be better able to embrace the uncertainties of a life lived rather than crafted. Nevertheless, Vann is a wonderful writer: the early stories of Legend of a Suicide bring themselves to fluid life, and the novella is, as the jacket flap promises, remarkable. Here's hoping that one day the storyteller will give us the documentary as well.