Penguin £7.99

Legend of a Suicide, By David Vann

The ghost of Hemingway stalks this haunting story

Suicide is always horribly violent. It's the death that wreaks maximum havoc on those left behind. Whether writing about it can be therapeutic is doubtful, but David Vann has drawn upon it to produce this striking – and sometimes shocking – work of literature. This is a collection of five interlinked short stories plus a novella, which constitute an extended fictionalised treatment of Vann's father's disturbing and untimely exit from life.

The fictional alter egos of Vann and his father are called Roy and Jim. Most of the action takes place in and around Alaska, an unforgiving environment. Jim is a disillusioned dentist in the grip of an unusually turbulent mid-lifer, which surges up and swamps his whole existence, work and private life alike. In search of an alternative lifestyle as a lone adventurer, he sells his practice for a fishing boat. But the fish keep their distance and, when his other investments backfire, he plunges into serious financial trouble. Amid the chaos, he has left Roy's mother for a mistress, but that relationship doesn't work out either. It's not long before he is on the stern of the boat, raising a Magnum revolver to his head.

There is further trauma for Roy when his mother starts to date a series of new partners. Fortunately, the US is good to boys who like guns and Roy has some enviable ordnance to hand. He shoots out street lamps ("Nothing was more beautiful to me than the blue-white explosion of a streetlight seen through cross-hairs"), then traffic lights and, eventually, the doors and windows of the family home.

The novella, "Sukkwan Island", stands alone in deviating markedly from the facts presented in the short stories. It details Jim's descent into madness and disaster on a remote island in the company of Roy. The turning-of-the-tables nature of its plot can be regarded, surely, as an act of revenge by Vann upon his father. Vann has a notable ability to capture mounting horror in economical prose. At times his writing is spare enough to evoke Ernest Hemingway, and he is adept at describing the austere and threatening beauty of the far north. When Roy gazes out from Sukkwan, "He liked... how the water became a molten gray, the sea heavier than anything and impossible to see into."

Vann is not afraid to strike out at classic themes. Roy's stories revolve around rites of passage. Jim's misplaced frontier confidence, meanwhile, leads him into a grisly variant of the death of the American dream. But to my mind, the book's most interesting aspect is its parallels within the European avant garde. The juxtaposition of conflicting versions of its numbing narrative content recall the split perspectives of cubism. And the clinical and decisive anger that shapes the narratives' progress – or, ultimately, stasis – bring to mind James Joyce's gnomon, a concept revolving around systematic subtraction. At the heart of Legend of a Suicide is an examination of the methodical withdrawal from Jim of all of the components of his life, including life itself.

Comparisons to pinnacles of modernism would be too large a burden for most young writers to bear, but Vann's back may be broad enough. There is a distinct feeling when reading Legend of a Suicide that this latest star from across the Atlantic can rise further still. In the meantime we can admire his supremely creative disposal of his father's devastating bequest.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?