Legend of
A Suicide

David Vann
(University of Massachusetts Press)
There are six stories, five short ones, and a 125 pager, "Sukkwan Island" (in two parts). I took the reviewer's option of parsing the five before plunging into the big one.

Young writers --- and in his jacket photograph, Vann looks young and clear-eyed --- are expected to have a few tics, repetitions and echoes. Vann's include pistols, guns, ammo, locks, spying on people, people with eye problems, sour-pussed (and sour talking) old ladies, parents almost shooting their kids, kids almost shooting their parents, and divorce and suicide. And, everywhere, fathers who are dentists.

Along with teeth ... my god, the teeth: "My father would rise again early to drill out the tiny infected nerves of teeth, fill cavities, make molds, instruct and squint and see his whole life reduced to something cramped and small."

We also run into fishtanks. Like one with fish called "silver dollars." Silver dollars like to chow down on any other fish around. For example, there's a "long, thin goldfish with a shiny body and two large, bulbous eyes." The silver dollars

    each went for an eye and sucked it out. They didn't even swallow, but let the round billiard-ball eyes float dreamily down to the rocks, where they were ingested by the sucker fish.

§     §     §

"Sukkwan Island" the centerpiece, tells of a thirteen-year-old boy and his father who choose to go off for a year to an Alaskan island, no one within miles, no contact with the world outside of an occasional seaplane which could only be called up on a faulty radio.

It starts off as a country adventure with bears and eagles and deer and the rain and the cold. But then Jim --- the boy's father --- shows himself to be a wilderness idiot. You don't just up and go and set up camp off in the outback. You prepare. Diligently. For any disaster.

Jim not only manages to do nothing right, he passes hours bemoaning his fate: abandoning his second wife, crying himself to sleep so much so that Roy (and the reader) become mortified by his maudlin ways, wish he would just shut up.

One day Jim falls off a cliff --- it might have been a suicide attempt. The boy drags him home to the cabin, nurses him back to health, and --- after he gets well --- he, this artful whiner, begins to nag Roy about being such a baby. "You know, his father says one night as they lay not sleeping, it's too out of control here."

    You're right. It takes a man to get through this. I shouldn't have brought a boy.

Dad is obviously on the edge, and it starts to be too much for son Roy, even more for the reader. We begin to wonder if there should be limits on writers torturing their characters ... and their readers? We learn what is going on in the head of a relatively normal kid having to live for a year on an island on furtherest outback with a parent who is (and probably always had been) more than mental. And a drip to boot.

There's a pistol offered, and a suicide, and the wandering about of a half-crazed survivor on a cold and isolated island ... things getting weirder and weirder, as he wanders about, madly, at first with the body, then, when that gets to be too much, abandoning it, hacking through the brush country, it all being so artfully written (at the dinner table with the body, parked in his sleeping bag, forced into a sitting position)...

... So that there comes a point, maybe around page 123, that the reader puts his foot down. This is just too much, I think. You can demand certain things of a reader but you can't demand that he go on with such a story, the tale of hurting someone to death, and then this lunatic (but not too lunatic, that would have made it bearable), wandering the cold, briar-filled island, not leaving himself ... nor us ... alone.

This one should have a sticker on the cover, advising caution: "Discretion advised. The author is merciless; will be demanding far too much of you."

Some call it art. I call it reader abuse.

--- Lolita Lark
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