Monday, September 12, 2011
Legend of a Suicide
I've been working on a little side project recently involving baseball suicides and when I came across an interview with the author of this book, David Vann, I figured I'd go ahead and read the book. Legend of a Suicide is five short stories which surround a novel Vann wrote, all about his father's suicide. His father shot himself when he was thirteen and Vann wrote these tales throughout his twenties as a means of coping and trying to understand his father's death.
While Vann's book is fiction, there are elements of truth throughout the stories. His father was a dentist with two failed marriages caused by his infidelity. He quit his dental practice to move to Alaska and live off the land and it is there that he shot himself. His father tried to get Vann to move to Alaska with him and spend his eighth grade school year with him but he said no. The novel, which is by far the most powerful and gripping story in the book, is Vann's take on what might have happened if he had gone.
The short stories weren't near as enjoyable but they were captivating. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Vann keeps the stories moving. I was trying to figure out what exactly made his writing so compelling. I think part comes from Vann writing simply but capturing the other senses to describe things. The sounds and smells and textures provide detail in a better way than if he just wrote what the characters saw or what was happening. I'm not entirely sure. Whatever it is, it grabbed me and kept me moving along.
There's a line in the fourth short story where Vann says his father "had inflicted avoidable pain on everyone around him but who must have suffered some himself". Suicide is horrible. For Vann to put together stories about suicide and make them good enough to want to read I think is an achievement. That being said, if I weren't already in a mindset about suicides, I don't know how willing I would be to read this. I mean, there's a reason why it took Vann another decade to get this published after he had finished it. Who wants to read about suicide?
It's a tough call. Vann's writing is good. It's not like I can recommend checking out one of his other books either (though I have not read any others) because their subject matters aren't all that chipper either. His book Caribou Island also deals with failed marriages and suicides. A Mile Down has some potential as it is about his failed attempts to restore a boat and start a chartered tour company in Turkey. He has a book coming out in the near future which is a creative non-fiction work (a genre of which I am not keen) about a school shooting. Not all sunshine and lollipops with Mr. Vann's writing.
I think ultimately I have to go with a zero star rating on this. While the writing is by far the redeeming quality, the subject matter (and the fact that there are many, many writers who write well about more enjoyable topic matters) make it that I can't recommend it on a general basis.