by David Vann
160 pages, Penguin £7.99
Review by Marc Nash
"What's hot?" I ask my friendly neighbourhood masochist, aka recently opened independent bookstore owner. He cites the above title. Tells me there's lots of buzz around it. He can even sell me a signed copy and it's got a sticker on to prove it. Since I'm being all sucky up cos I want him to stock my novel, I pass him the currency and decline a bag as I'm trying to raise the fallen arches of my carbon footprint.
David Vann's father did commit suicide at age 40. The book is dedicated to him. The writing is indubitably the author's way of dealing with the whole thing. Writing as therapy? Well not quite, for that would not be crediting Vann for some considerable skill.
As the title suggests, Vann fabricates a myth around the one incontestable fact of his father's headlong rush into mortality. A few myths actually, as he probes the unknowable, what is inside another person's head that leads them to snuffing themselves out. The early chapters are elegant, economical slices of a boy's ordinary life. They read a bit like "Catcher In The Rye" which is a definite plus point. If anything they are a bit too short, leaving the reader wanting more, but again that can only be a good thing.
Then we come to the meat of the thing. An 165 page novella at the heart of the book which from a plot point of view makes for perfect logic. Divorced, unfulfilled father decides to drop out of mainstream society and live in the wilds of Alaska and takes his son with him to reconcile each to the other. I can't give the twist away as to how this adds another layer to the myth, but it works startlingly well.
It portrays the complete and utter void of emotional nourishment felt by both father and son individually and as a pair through their faltering efforts to tame the great outdoors. In doing so it presents a stunning condemnation of what it is to be male. All their actions in the wilderness teeter on the edge of giving their lives meaning, but fail by a country mile to do anything of the sort. But there are only so many times the author can get away with showing someone smashing up vital kit for survival, because something goes wrong and he can't express his feelings properly.
Also the shootin', huntin' & fishin' was a very American outdoorsy Hemingway thang which left me as a Brit a bit out in the cold. The detail of fishing and gutting et al, well let's just say I am more naturally drawn to McEwan's description of the rises and falls of emotion in a squash match as described in "Saturday". It's just a cultural divide, but for me the metaphor of the outdoor survival ordeal is just a bit over-extended and risks collapsing in on itself at times. Also the shortish chapters that follow the novella are a bit overwhelmed by what has preceded them and didn't really add a great deal to the book.
But my real issue with the novel concerns its musings on suicide, I have some family experience of this so I'm declaring my hand at this point. I did not feel that by mythologising it, Vann penetrated its dark heart in any enlightening way. We seem to forever be hovering with the characters around the essential kernel of truth, even if that truth is a void. The reason for suicide were both patently clear and yet managed to avoid the rawness of confrontation with its essential material fact - passing out of life and over into death. The disintegration of the mind was shown from the outside, but never successfully probed at one step further in towards intimacy. What makes a person take the final step over the threshold to end their life. So I for one, felt a little cheated, but like I say I have some history, so please don't let this determine whether you might miss out on what is a brave and refreshingly different book.