Legend of a Suicide is a collection of a novella and four short stories... but I wish someone had told me that before I started. I read it as a single long novel, and the fact that the characters are the same in all the stories didn't help with the confusion.
The book is semi-autobiographical, as it's about a boy named Roy and his suicidal divorcee father Jim who's a retired dentist who fails at fishing and eventually buys a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, and asks his son to stay with him for a year and then commits suicide. In real life, David Vann had a ex-dentist suicidal divorcee father who failed at fishing, bought a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, asked David to stay with him, and then committed suicide shortly thereafter.
The short stories are lovely to read in themselves - beautifully written, poetic in their descriptions and Vann manages to capture the many micro-subtleties of human emotion - but it's the novella that's a breathtaker. The novella is the part that describes Roy and his father's adventure in remote Alaska, doing the Bear Grylls survival-thing: hunting, fishing and building things. In the book, Roy accompanies his father in a desperate attempt to keep him alive, as he's sure that left to his own devices, his father will commit suicide. In real life, David turned down his father's offer of going to Alaska with him, and soon after, his father committed suicide. The novella is like a kind of emotional and/or spiritual purging for Vann, imagining what might have happened had his decision been different.
The raw emotions and truly pathetic weakness of Roy's father is simply infuriating. He sobs himself to sleep every night (with his 13 year old son sleeping in the same room), makes emotional confessions to a boy not old enough to process them, attempts to kill himself by stepping over a ledge in the middle of nowhere (how on earth did he expect his son to survive if he'd died?) and tries to emotionally blackmail his second wife into taking him back by saying he'll shoot himself through the head right there on the phone with her if he doesn't. All this leads to tragic and shocking consequences that you simply don't expect, a sudden twist from the author that simultaneously brings (one imagines) release and revenge at the same time.
Legend of a Suicide is a truly intriguing read that continued to haunt me for a few days after.