A series of interrelated stories that include a novella (Sukkwan Island), the book is a semi-autobiographical tale of the impact of a father's suicide on his teenage son.  The author, David Vann, represents his fictional self as Roy Fenn, and his father as Jim.  In the first story, "Ichthyology," Roy is born on an island "at the edge of the Bering Sea" of Alaska and then he and his family move to Ketchikan, on an island in southeastern Alaska.  Roy's father is ever restless and that includes an interest in women other than his wife.  When Roy is about five years old the marriage breaks up and Roy moves to California with his mother.  At the end of this chapter, Roy's father kills himself with one of his own guns.

"Rhoda" is the story of Jim's second marriage to Rhoda who becomes Roy's stepmother, until that marriage also ends in divorce.  "A Legend of Good Men" relates how Roy's mother was courted by various suitors following her divorce.  These narratives are told from Roy's perspective.  The next and largest section of the book is "Sukkwan Island."  It is on this Alaskan island that Roy spends an extended visit with his father, in a simple, isolated cabin where their only other human contact is with a supply plane that comes periodically.  Life is primitive and difficult and reflects the relationship of father and son, which is uneasy and foreign to Roy.  Jim is depressed, obsessed with his former wife Rhoda and often cries at night, which Roy finds sad, scary, and eventually despicable.  Life on the island takes a bizarre turn, which I will not reveal here.

In "Ketchikan" Roy at age 30 returns to the town of his early childhood "the place where my dead father had first gone astray [with Gloria, his dental receptionist], the place where this father and his suicide and his cheating and his lies and my pity for him, also, might finally be put to rest" (209).  The last story, "The Higher Blue," is a mixture of fantasy and narrative reality; comments about Jim made by Roy's mother serve to bookend the novel.


This is an extraordinarily book, haunting, poetic, imaginative.  Coastal Alaska is a major character that looms throughout the ambivalent relationship of Roy to his father.  Guns, fishing, and hunting also play an important role.  As the book moves non-linearly among locations and time frames, the reader gets a sense of the disorientation and fantasies that Roy/the author experiences following the divorce and especially following the father's suicide. The HarperPerennial edition includes an essay by David Vann, "My Father's Guns," which is well worth reading (after you read the novel) for additional insight into the father-son relationship and the questions that the author lived with for many years.


First published 2008 in hardcover by the University of Massachusetts Press



Place Published

New York



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