Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story writers. If you have not had the pleasure yet, may I suggest Our Story Begins, a collection of stories drawn from across his career with the addition of ten new stories as well? A purchase you will not regret. A chance to marvel at a master manipulator of perspective whose characters reside in engagingly improbable creations of their own variously damaged psyches. Deeply moving and often hilarious to me. And I mention Wolff because I could not help but think of him as I read through Legend of a Suicide by David Vann. Then after finishing the book tonight, I was leafing through the supplementary material in the back and discovered:
"When I returned to Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, Toby Wolff, who had long been my favorite writer, encouraged me also."
Well, there you go.
Legend of a Suicide is a set of five interconnected short stories and one novella that offer varying, fictionalized perspectives on the suicide of the author's father. Unlike the short story cycle of Olive Kittredge where the chronological progression reveals a deeper and deeper set of insights into the protagonist, this set of linked pieces reveals alternate perspectives on a deeply troubled man's attempts to navigate life, and the ways in which this impacts his son, Roy.
We know from the beginning that Jim Fenn is a bit of a dreamer, an impractical mess. When he neglects to put in the drain plugs in his new boat on the afternoon of its launch, the young Roy thinks, "Unlike my mother, he had neither eyes nor ears for matters below the surface." The reader is not left to wonder about Jim's fate for long. Like everyone around him that senses the worst from Jim's downward spiral, we know the suicide is coming even before it is explicitly stated on page 10. What remains of the book is what has been referred to elsewhere as an exorcism of grief in which Vann travels around the event watching varying realities through different eyes and the possibilities of his own imagination.
Watching is the key word for me here. Many who have had a relationship with a suicidal person or been in that state themselves understands that irresistible pull to watch or the discomfort of always being watched. A profound neediness that many hope to tame by watching so intently as to catch the content of some previously unrevealed secret, some source of this disconnect from the same script everyone else follows more or less successfully. And so here, all watch Jim's second wife Rhoda, and Jim and Roy watch her for signs of staying power. The fish who cannot live peacefully with others in the tank are first watched then flushed alive. The child that watches and absorbs more details around him than he is equipped to absorb figures prominently here. Everyone watching when realities too difficult go unsaid.
The most staggering portion of the book is the novella, a diversion from the story already shared in which the son/writer left behind perhaps releases baggage by reminding himself that what he feels guilt over is not necessary as once imagined but the key to self-preservation. A dark and disturbing exploration of the possible ill effects of giving into the guilt, of assuming responsibility for something beyond control. There is anger in this extreme re-creation, but an understandable one.
All a little deliberately vague here as I don't want to give too much away. The language is gorgeous, the sadness palpable, but there is also humor and moments of happiness here. The navigation of family history and the ways it can be written or unwritten. The natural beauty of Alaska. Pacing so superb that I read this in an afternoon. Memorable portraits. Highly recommended.