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Legend of Suicide by David Vann

I first saw David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide on my colleague, Alexandra’s desk. I was enticed by the beautiful cover, shinny red and blue, not noticing that the body of the fish were actually guns in several rotations. I borrowed it from Alex and walked into the book with no clue what it is about. All I know that it is about Alaska. Ok, that’s good enough, I thought.

I’m not sure why it is called “a collection of related stories”? because to me they were all related and it feels continuous. It was David’s voice, all through and through. First David’s father blow his head off and then the loss was so great that he got himself into trouble, then followed by David’s imaginary stories about what would happen if it is the other way round? (I won’t spoil it for you but you would have to guess what the other way round means) so called the titular “Legend”, a make-up story which Roy and his father Jim played the starring role. At the end of it, a chapter titled “Ketchikan” David came back and reflects back on what happened to his father and the story came full circle in “The Higher Blue” and a befitting end.

In the longest chapter “Sukkwan Island” Jim and his thirteen-year old son, Roy, decided to spend a year living in the Alaskan wilderness. Jim buys a cabin on a remote island off the coast of Alaska and takes Roy out of school to be with him, much to the disapproval of Roy’s mother. Roy doesn’t want to leave his mother and sister in California, but goes anyway, sensing his father’s fragile mental state. Together they plan to live a frontier lifestyle of fishing, hunting and resourcefulness. There are no moms and pops shops out in the Alaskan wilderness, we are talking about radioing to get your daily supplies by an airplane and weathering bitter cold and snow to hunt for your next meal.

Roy’s father has failed in many ways. He was a failed dentist, a failed fisherman, the IRS is after him and what hurts more than ever was that he is a failed husband, twice. We experience the distressing sight of young Roy witnessing his father crying in his sleep, miserable, troubled and depressed.

One can see that David Vann has a superior writing talent. His prose is beautiful and not one that allows you to fly by but slowly savour. There isn’t much going on and I was bored by the scouring and hunting and building and trudging in the snow. Then there was a huge shock and it became all gory and graphic with a dead body in a sleeping bag. The warning is, it is very graphic.

Having said all that, when the book is brilliant, it is brilliant! Ponder upon this favourite passage of mine:

He (Jim) remembered Roy picking blueberries in his red jacket and knocking down icicles and finding the antlers Jim had thrown behind the fence. Jim had thrown them there because they were small, but Roy discovered them and treasured them as if they were artifacts of another people. They seemed mysterious and wonderful to him. Jim didn’t know how these times  became the last years with Roy, didn’t understand any of the transformations, and remembering, Jim realised he was gone for years of Roy’s life, even in Ketchikan when they all still lived together, because Jim was thinking then of women, scheming, beginning to cheat. He had fallen into his secret life with other women and not known anyone or anything else. After the divorce, he still didn’t wake up, but continued after women, and so he could not say who Roy was in the end. He was missing too many of the years leading up to him. –  page156

This is where it struck a chord to me most. How many times because of our own travails that we took the time with our children for granted? Brushing them off as minions and do not provide the attentions that they need to nurture? And that passage hurts me to think that a child can be this hurt and as an adult David Vann is still hurting that’s why he wrote the book. It is this afterthought appreciation of what David Vann went through that really caught my attention and put on a new light and significance of this book. The novel is autobiographical and Vann has openly shared his family secrets to us. I don’t want this review to drag on but I like you to read what David Vann has to say about writing the book at Huffington Post (it’s very inspiring, trust me on this!):

“For three years after my father killed himself, I told everyone he had died of cancer. Perhaps it was the violence of what my father did, taking off most of his head with a .44 magnum pistol, the pistol used by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies. My father took me to those movies–his favorites–when I was a child. And what he did seemed to transfer to me, the violence and shame of it, so I didn’t want anyone to know. What he had done made me dirty.

There are more than 33,000 suicides in theUnited Statesevery year, and half of those are with guns. 83% of gun deaths in homes are in fact suicide, not the much-imagined and nearly mythical protection of one’s home against intruders, and often the suicide is not by the gun owner but instead by the gun owner’s children or spouse or other family. Think of how many Americans are directly affected, the parent or spouse or child of a suicide, their lives changed forever. Or all the others who are also affected–the friends, for instance, of a suicide. That’s a lot of people ashamed to talk.

Guilt, also. My parents were divorced, and my father asked whether I would spend the next school year (8th grade) with him in Fairbanks, Alaska, leaving my mother and sister and friends inCalifornia. I said no, and two weeks later, he killed himself. A therapist had told my uncle to stay with my father and accompany him on his final trip up toFairbanks, and to separate his guns and shells. But my father talked my uncle out of this at the airport, convinced him he was fine. Then flew up toFairbanksand killed himself. Every person left behind by a suicide has some moment like this, some ugly opportunity for lifelong guilt, and this helps drive the shame, a feeling that one is, at one’s core, essentially bad, unworthy, damned.

We should certainly try everything possible to prevent suicide, and what I wish my father had known is that his life could have been reshaped. Though he had hit a kind of dead-end, he could have lived on a hundred different ways. Though he hated his job, he could have switched careers. Though he had failed in two marriages, he wasn’t doomed. Though he owed back-taxes, that was only money. My sister and I still loved him, and really, that should have been enough. And what I wish survivors of suicide could know is that it’s not their fault and it doesn’t make them dirty or damned. I also want them to know that all that’s most unbearable does fade with time. This March 15th was the 30th anniversary of my father’s death, and by now, all that was debilitating about his suicide–the guilt, anger, fear, insomnia, and even shame–has fallen away. All that remains is the fact that I still love him.

That last paragraph moves me to tears…..


It’s not an enjoyable book but it is certainly powerful, therefore it’s a 3.5 for me. After reading David Vann’s motivation behind this book, I began to understand why the book had won the hearts of almost every book judging panel around the world. I look forward to read Caribou Island at some point.

Other reviews:

Graham@my book year: It is an extremely poignant book, and the emotional shadow cast by the suicide of Roy/David’s father is a long one.

The girl from the ghetto: As you can imagine, Legend of Suicide is an adventure into the dark psyche of a man (and a boy) with lot of rage. This book isn’t for everyone, but it certainly was a thrilling ride for me.

Books like breathing: I really did not expect to like this book at all. But, as I find with many books I judge before opening, I was wrong.

Steph @Steph and Tony investigate: Ultimately, I think Vann has used the short story format in a clever way that helps manifest the bewildering and cacophonous effects of suicide.  I wish I had found each story rewarding in its own right, but I’m very glad that united, they produce something diaphanous that would not be easily captured through any other format.

David Vann’s take on publishing the book at Huffington Post

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin 2009; Length: 228 pages; Setting: Alaska, USA. Source: Alex’s copy. Finished reading on: 7th August 2011.

About the writer:

David Vann was born on Adak Island, Alaska and spent his childhood in Ketchikan. He is an assistant professor of English at University of San Francisco. He teaches creative nonfiction and fiction. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and is the author of the memoir A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, Writer’s Digest, and other magazines.

Vann’s collection of stories Legend of a Suicide was published in 2008. Vann’s own father committed suicide when Vann was 13, an event which the book explores through several fictionalized viewpoints, including the central novella Sukkwan Island. Alexander Linklater of The Observer called it “an extraordinary, ground-breaking piece of fiction.” Published as a novel in French by Gallmeister, Sukkwan Island was well received critically in France, where it won the Prix Médicis étranger in 2010.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


29 thoughts on “Legend of Suicide by David Vann

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    Posted by Catherine Meyers | August 13, 2011, 12:50 pm
  2. I would have never noticed the guns had you not pointed them out! And I agree with you on the last paragraph!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | August 13, 2011, 1:29 pm
  3. I missed the guns first time round I loved this and have read but yet to review the flow upo ,this book is so seeped in his own life ,it makes it all the more gritty ,all the best stu

    Posted by stujallen | August 13, 2011, 2:39 pm
  4. I thought this was a really powerful book. I agree that it isn’t exactly enjoyable, but I loved its originality and the impact of that chapter will stay with me forever. Caribou Island is next on my pile and I’m really hoping it has as much impact as this one.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | August 13, 2011, 5:14 pm
  5. It took me too many embarrassing minutes to see the guns. Before I was only turned off by the fish 😀 (I find fish creepy, don’t ask 😉 )

    But the topic and prose do sound powerful so I will try to find a copy without fish on the cover. And graphic doesn’t scare me off (there should be an extra category for people who have read American Psycho 😉 ).

    Posted by Bina | August 13, 2011, 6:31 pm
    • Bina,
      LOL… fish aren’t creepy and I doubt if you can find the book without the fish on it, maybe the hardcover? I can’t even finish the first chapter of American Psycho! I think there are some books no matter how good people say it is, I’ll never read it, and this is one of them. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | August 14, 2011, 11:32 am
      • Yes they are! ;D Maybe I’ll just put the book in wrapping paper (thoughpeople on the train will probably think I’m reading sth kinky).

        Well, I’m actually writing a paper on Am Psycho and so have to read it for the third time. I’m a bit afraid someone will put me into an asylum after that 😉 It is a tough read I guess though it’s also super funny. But I know it’s not for everyone (like fish!).

        Posted by Bina | August 14, 2011, 12:11 pm
  6. Like Bina, it took me several more embarrassing moments to figure out the guns! :-). This seems a very powerful book, JoV. It must have taken the author courage to write about what must have been such a shattering, gut-wrenching “episode” that leaves everyone around scarred for life. Maybe I will pick up the courage to read this book one day…

    As always, fantastic review!

    Posted by Soul Muser | August 14, 2011, 11:05 am
    • Soul,
      I admire his courage must be very haunting to live with the “what-if’s” the author had gone with his father to Alaska, then his father wouldn’t had killed himself kinda of self-berating…. so for that, I think the book deserves a wider audience. A book of hope for a dark subject.

      Thanks for your kind words! 😉

      Posted by JoV | August 14, 2011, 11:34 am
  7. I was so impressed by this book. It has one of the most sudden ‘shocks’, where you stop and realise what has happened that I can think of in any book.
    Like you I’m really looking forward to reading Caribou Island at some point.
    ps. the link you put to my site is pointing to the wrong one! 🙂

    Posted by Graham | August 14, 2011, 5:14 pm
  8. Much squinting and concentrated gazing later, I managed to find the guns.. I somehow assumed that i would find them in the periphery of the fish’s body and keep squinting till i discovered it elsewhere.. super googly! . The book sounds a little to dark for my current reading mood,so will put it in my TBR list.

    Posted by Bhargavi | August 14, 2011, 5:18 pm
    • Bhargavi,
      It’s interesting to look at something discovered hidden images in the picture! It is dark and not one that I find entertaining enough to finish very quickly even with the thin size of it. Then again not all books have to be entertaining to make an impact!

      Posted by JoV | August 15, 2011, 7:38 am
  9. I thought it was very good as well. The gory part was a shocker, wasn’t it?

    Posted by Ti | August 14, 2011, 9:56 pm
    • Ti,
      It is a shocker! shocking still about what happened to the body…. I suppose it’s a punishment or serves as a penance for the “person” who has inflicted so much pain on the others. Very vivid.

      Posted by JoV | August 15, 2011, 7:40 am
  10. It looks like we had really similar reactions to this one. I actually don’t remember tons about it anymore, except that I really enjoyed the longer story in the collection, Sukkwan Island. I do really want to read Vann’s latest novel, Caribou Island at some point, too!

    Posted by Steph | August 15, 2011, 1:38 am
  11. Lovely review. Yours has reminded me that I want to read this book. Badly.

    Posted by Kinna | August 15, 2011, 6:20 pm
  12. Nice review, Jo! Alaska is a wonderful landscape and I think David Vann’s description of it must be quite beautiful. This book reminds me of some of the Russian stories that I have read where people live in snowy terrain and hunt during winter and live a frontier life and live, love and die there.

    I am still not able to see the gun on the cover 😦 I think this should be a quiz in a ‘lateral thinking’ programme 🙂

    Posted by Vishy | September 1, 2011, 5:55 am


  1. Pingback: It’s a Wrap! August 2011 « Bibliojunkie - September 2, 2011

  2. Pingback: Goat Mountain by David Vann | JoV's Book Pyramid - September 8, 2013

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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