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.
Vann explores the wound of paternal suicide and it’s resonance across time. In a collection of short stories that share theme, setting and characters he shows us Roy and the impact of his father’s suicide on him. The changes in perspective between stories are a little jarring, and the central story, as incredible as it is, is jarred by the way that it is structured.
For all that, it reaches incredible heights, delivering a central set piece that starts off poignant and then descends into a pitch black nightmare where you are not spared from the inexorable logic of Vann’s crisp plotting and beatific prose. It was his first book and it held within it, the promise that bloomed in Dirt and Caribou Island, a melange of careful observation, exquisite, unsparing prose and a deep understanding of blood, dirt, landscape, self deception and familial agony.
He does not write comfortable books but there is within him, a greatness that marks him out. He has the nervy insight of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood and he harkens to the spare unstinting chilly beauty of Cormac McCarthy. It’s fascinating to read later books by an author and then see the first book where the author is developing their style and craft. Vann is great, and everything I have read points to a writer who is continuing to come up with startling and powerful literature. Legend Of A Suicide speaks to the wound that the missing or departed father leaves in a child, the unanswered questions, the unfulfilled destinies, the hopes and the unspoken dreams.
Books like these aren’t comfortable, but they matter. Life is ugly, cruel and lacks logic or justice, but against that are moments or periods of joy and wonder that make the whole ride worth it. Literature is a way to make sense of it all, a limited perspective using a method that seems almost antiquated but continues to thrive and develop. More people are reading than ever, even if the last publishing bump was adult colouring books and celebrity biographies, then at least there is space for the likes of Vann, not only to publish but also to continue to publish. Give him some consideration, he’s doing spectacular work. I’m close to finishing Goat Mountain and it’s stunning, entirely worthy work and a continued evolution of his craft and focus.