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Legend of a Suicide: Stories Paperback – March 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This well-crafted debut collection, five stories and a novella, from award-winning writer and memoirist Vann (A Mile Down) revolves obsessively around the suicide of an Alaskan father. Hopscotching through time, each tale examines the father's death from the perspective of his young son, Roy. The first story, Ichthyology, introduces the young protagonist and his troubled father, a tax-dodging dentist and fisherman who ends up shooting himself on the deck of his fishing boat. Rhoda finds the 12-year-old boy bonding with his new stepmother, a pretty young woman his father married before the tragedy. In A Legend of Good Men, Roy imagines a fantastically violent rampage in which he does away with his mother's suitors, à la Odysseus and Telemachus. The novella, Sukkwan Island, is an increasingly suspenseful story of survival, in which a 13-year-old Roy and his father brave the elements for months in an isolated mountain cabin. Vann uses startling powers of observation to create strong characters, tense scenes and genuine surprises, leading to a ghastly conclusion that's sure to linger. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“The reportorial relentlessness of Vann’s imagination often makes his fiction seem less written than chiseled. A small, lovely book has been written out of his large and evident pain. (Tom Bissell, New York Times Book Review)

“With Legend of a Suicide, Vann looks into the dark and isolated heart of the American soul. It is a devastating journey that is difficult to read but impossible to put down and equally impossible to forget.” (June Sawyers, San Francisco Chronicle)

“The stories in Legend of a Suicide approach a private mythos, revisiting, reinvestigating, and reinventing one family’s broken past. They also transport us to wild, uncharted places on the Alaskan coast and in the American soul. Throughout, David Vann is a generous, sure-handed guide in some very dangerous territory.” (Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing)

“Headlong narrative pacing, a memorable train-wreck father who gives Richard Russo’s characters a run for their money, and a sure, sharp, inviting voice. So hard to put down that I am thinking of suing David Vann for several hours of lost sleep.” (Lionel Shriver, author of So Much For That and The Post-Birthday World)

“His legend is at once the truest memoir and the purest fiction. . . . Nothing quite like this book has been written before.” (Alexander Linklater, London Observer)

“The writing in these stories, informed by both the empirical and the lyrical, is heart-wrenching and gorgeous.” (Lorrie Moore)

“Brilliant . . . Vann’s prose follows the sinews of Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway, yet has its own nimble flex.” (The Times (London))

“Vengeful yet sorrowing and empathetic, plausible yet dreamlike, and completely absorbing.” (Christopher Tayler, The Guardian)

“As primal and unforgiving as the Alaskan wilds where it’s set.” (Bret Anthony Johnston, Men's Journal)

“David Vann’s extraordinary and inventive set of fictional variations on his father’s death will surely become an American classic.” (The Times Literary Supplement (London))

“A reckoning. . . . A message of profound sympathy and sadness, anger and regret, Legend of a Suicide is the melting away of one man’s past and the reshaping of tragedy into art. . . . [It] journeys unflinchingly into darkness.” (Greg Schutz, Fiction Writers Review)

“A powerful new voice has emerged in fiction.” (Sunday Times (London))

“A piece of relentless, heartbreaking brilliance that bears comparison with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” (The Weekend Australian)

“In his portrayal of a young son’s love for his lost father David Vann has created a stunning work of fiction: surprising, beautiful, and intensely moving.” (Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers and The Wasted Vigil)

“The most powerful, and pure, piece of writing I have read for a very long time. This book squeezes more life out of the first 100 pages than most books could manage in 1,000, which is pretty impressive, considering it’s a book about death.” (Ross Raisin, author of Out Backward)

‘This is my ‘One to watch’. . . . It’s stunning, beautifully written, with genuine surprises and a complexity which makes you retrace your steps, wonder what really happened and ponder over the whole scenario for days. I loved it. It’s Richard Yates, Annie Proulx territory, and highly recommended.” (Sarah Broadhurst, The Bookseller (UK))

“David Vann’s dark and strange book twists through natural forces and compressed emotions towards an extraordinary and dreamlike conclusion. One of the most gripping debuts I’ve ever read.” (Philip Hoare, author Leviathan, winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize)

“For the imagery alone and for the sentences, the book would be a treasure.” (Colm Tóibín, London Observer)

“A truly great writer.” (Irish Sunday Independent)

“Extraordinary. . . . Reminiscent of Tobias Wolff, Vann’s prose is as pure as a gulp of water from an Alaskan stream.” (Financial Times)

“The book is as dark, stormy, and beautiful as the ragged Aleutian coast.” (National Geographic Adventure)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061875848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061875847
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #474,036 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 26, 2010
Format: Paperback
In the postscript to this astoundingly original book, David Vann quotes Grace Paley in saying that "every line in fiction has to be true. It has to be a distillation of experience more true to a person's life than any moment he or she has actually lived."

Through that definition, Legends of a Suicide is a true book. James Edward Vann - the author's father - did, indeed, kill himself when David was only 13. But the circumstances described here are that of mythology - a real-world event that is imagined, transformed, repackaged, reimagined. The book holds fast to the truth of the suicide and how it affected the author, even when it diverges significantly from the facts.

In ways, one can describe this book as a howl in the dark; the tentacles of the father's despairing act reach through the years and ensnare the author for decades. The book - opening and closing interweaving short stories and a novella - are mostly set in Ketchikan and the isolated Alaska woods.

What emerges is the portrait of a self-absorbed, clinically depressed, damaged man. At one point, the fictional-but-real father says, "I need the world animated and I need it to refer to me. I need to know that when a glacier shifts or a bear farts, it has something to do with me..."

Half-way through the book, there is a gasp-out-loud moment that will totally transform the relationship between the father, the son, and indeed, the reader. Everything is suddenly reconfigured and as the book takes form again, the reader begins to realize exactly how the suicide has affected the author. I will not reveal this spoiler, but it is one of the most astonishing feats I've seen in reimagined fiction.
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Format: Paperback
This book of five short stories and one novella - 75% of the book - is an effort by the author to shed some light on suicide generally, but more specifically on that of his father some thirty years prior. Because of the autobiographical intent of the book, it is somewhat unfortunate that the author included strange, inconsistent twists in some of the stories that confuse and dilute the effort. However, little doubt is left concerning the psychic pain surrounding suicide - its haunting after effects, not to mention the mental deterioration leading to it.

The main story is set in a totally isolated fiord, surrounded by steep mountains, in southeastern Alaska where Jim, a lapsed dentist and twice divorced, has prevailed upon his thirteen-year-old son, Roy, now living in California with his mother, to live for a year in an A-frame cabin. It quickly becomes evident that they are almost totally unprepared for such a life; they lack both knowledge of primitive survival techniques and essential tools and supplies. Within days of being flown in on an amphibian plane, a bear breaks in and devastates their cabin, ruining most of their food supply. That is only a small sample of what the harsh, rocky, wet, and cold landscape suggests is to come.

Beyond the upsetting environmental surprises, little did Roy understand the psychological depths to which his father's life had sunk. His life had been spiraling downward for some time, with two failed marriages, numerous affairs, a failed commercial fishing venture, and a dentistry career left behind. Roy was not ready for the nighttime crying and talking of his father, which was covered with false cheerfulness in the mornings. The entire scenario was unsustainable, bursting with tension, and it all finally exploded with a devastating death.
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Format: Hardcover
Basically 6 short stories focusing on Roy and his relationship with his father, and the huge shadow his suicide casts on him. The main story, 'Sukkwan Island' has them together on an ill thought out adventure break in an isolated cabin on an Alaskan island and explores how Jim would react and respond to his sons suicide.
This is a poignant book on an extremely difficult subject, and Vann -over the span of the novel- exorcises the demons that must haunt the survivors of a suicide in the family;something the aurthor has experienced personally.
'Legend of a suicide' is a well written, absorbing book but the sudden change of emphasis and plot in the 'Sukkwan' chapter does throw you off the scent you picked up in the opening 2 chapters and resume with in the closing 3 chapters, so it is worth begining this book in the knowledge that it is basically 6 stories about suicide and its aftermath.
A brave book that acts as a kind of antidote to contemplation and enacting of suicide that permeate so many literary works-Hemingway, Mishima and Styron's spring instantly to mind.Well
'Legend of a suicide' is well worth a read.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, in an interview, once said "it is the job of the writer, in one way or another, to be no respecter of boundaries...a great work of literature transcends a genre." It is with this clear transcendence of the literary fiction genre that David Vann has penned this great work of literature. A driving, intense but also exceedingly introspective work, Vann embraces the human condition, focusing on the disturbed and tormented mind, moreso than I've ever read. The result is a literary bombshell, one absolutely worthy of all its accolades.

A compendium of six fictional stories all seemingly integrated, but yet compellingly different, Vann exposits on his father's suicide at the age of thirteen. Writing in the abstract but with an amazing personal attachment, Vann explores the inner demons that drive one to take his own life. This work, however, is deep and melancholy, especially the novella Sukkwan Island, the highlight of the book. In it, a young thirteen year old son of a twice divorced man agrees to spend a year with his father on a remote Alaskan Island ostensibly to learn fishing, hunting...etc, a sort of bonding expedition. From the son's point of view, however, it is a gage of his father's rapid deterioration into depression.

Without giving anything away, this story is almost existential in its study of intensity, desperation, sorrow and survival. Vann seems to nail every emotional point imaginable in this powerful novella and I was exceedingly impressed with character, expression and literary skill all wrapped into one amazing story. This is sublime writing and Vann is an author to watch.

The other works are succinctly shorter and less intense but no less literary or profound.
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