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Cover for Legend of a Suicide

Legend of a Suicide


David Vann


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“The reportorial relentlessness of [David] 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.”—New York Times Book Review

 In Legend of a Suicide, his heartbreaking semi-autobiographical debut story-collection, David Vann relates the story of a young man trying to come to terms with the guilt and pain of his father’s suicide. The wild outback of the author’s native Alaska acts as the ideal backdrop for this collage of six stories—a novella and five shorts—and mirrors the author’s own psychological wilderness. From “an important new voice in American literature” (Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain) comes an unforgettable exploration of the tragic gaps between one boy and his father.

Praise For Legend of a Suicide: Stories

“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

Harper Perennial, 9780061875847, 272pp.

Publication Date: March 16, 2010

About the Author

Published in twenty languages, David Vann's internationally bestselling books have won fifteen prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and have appeared on seventy-five Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He's written for the New York Times, Atlantic, Esquire, Outside, Sunset, Men's Journal, McSweeney's, and many other publications, and he has been a Guggenheim, Stegner, and NEA fellow.

Conversation Starters from

“Ichthyology” means ‘the study of fish.’  What do we learn from fish in this story?  How do we read them?  Why not just tell the story of the father directly?

What does the boy understand in “Rhoda”?  What does the father understand?  What does Rhoda understand?

The structure of “A Legend of Good Men” is a series of portraits, borrowing from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and the tradition of writing about saints’ lives (and this is the meaning of the word “Legend” in the title of the book also: a series of portraits).  Why do we need to hear about all these men?  What’s the point?

The enormous change in the middle of the novella “Sukkwan Island” came as a complete surprise to the author.  He didn’t know what was going to happen until he was partway through writing that sentence.  What’s the significance of the event? 

What role does wilderness play in “Sukkwan Island”?

What is Roy searching for in “Ketchikan”?  What does he find?

“The Higher Blue” repeats the dramatic structure of “Ichthyology” but in a fabulist riff which provides an epilogue to the book.  The story is set in Fairbanks, where the author’s father actually killed himself.  Why does the boy hide away in the cabinet?

Is this book closer to being a story collection or a novel?  Do the stories have to be read together and in this order to gain their full meaning?

Why does the style vary from story to story?

Is it possible to understand why someone has committed suicide?