They like libraries, central heating and gossip, and they strongly dislike DIY. Capable and manly, their sensitivity — their ability to look right into the souls of men and, though less often, women — reveals itself mostly, and in some cases exclusively, in the pages of their elemental best-selling stories. David Vann , whose new book, Caribou Island, is surely one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year, is this kind of writer: you can, and most critics do, draw a straight line from him right back to Ernest Hemingway, taking in Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford along the way. Physically, he is like a young Jon Voight: golden skin, full lips, eyes the colour of a lake beneath a cloudless sky. Part of you wonders, even on a lunch date in the middle of Soho, where he parked his horse. He can sail and shoot, and likes to walk for several hours every day, ideally in New Zealand, a country he loves for its lack of people he currently lives in California, which stands a decent substitute.
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They like libraries, central heating and gossip, and they strongly dislike DIY. Capable and manly, their sensitivity — their ability to look right into the souls of men and, though less often, women — reveals itself mostly, and in some cases exclusively, in the pages of their elemental best-selling stories. David Vann , whose new book, Caribou Island, is surely one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year, is this kind of writer: you can, and most critics do, draw a straight line from him right back to Ernest Hemingway, taking in Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford along the way.
Physically, he is like a young Jon Voight: golden skin, full lips, eyes the colour of a lake beneath a cloudless sky. Part of you wonders, even on a lunch date in the middle of Soho, where he parked his horse. He can sail and shoot, and likes to walk for several hours every day, ideally in New Zealand, a country he loves for its lack of people he currently lives in California, which stands a decent substitute. In conversation, he is blessedly straightforward. Ask him anything, and he will answer with all the bluntness of an axe.
On the page, though, the landscapes of his imagination — ice and bears and big skies — comprise an inescapable stage on which his characters must slug it out emotionally as well as physically.
Even before you meet him, you cannot believe what he knows. Caribou Island is a scant pages, and written in prose as pellucid as the rivers he used to fish as a boy. But it says so much: about men and women, about marriage, about the desperate gap between who we want to be and who we are.
Every paragraph, every sentence, seems custom-built to illustrate the conviction of his old creative writing teacher, Grace Paley, that "fiction must always be true". Like that book, which he tried and failed to get published for more than a decade, he originally began work on Caribou Island a long, long time ago. Also like that book, it is set in beautiful but godforsaken Alaska , and much of the action takes place in and around an isolated cabin.
Vann laughs. His poor stepmother. In the next moments she could hear parts of his head dripping off the ceiling and on to a card table. Three days later, on her birthday, she received flowers from him.
Of course, I knew this already; when Legend of a Suicide came out, Vann did not — as a more precious or insecure writer might have done — try to hide the overlap between fact and fiction. My jaw swings wide open, but Vann only smiles. He is matter of fact about this stuff. But then she must have decided to take him out, too. In her case, it actually appeared pretty clear. It was a cruel thing that he said to her, and a cruel thing that he did. In a way, infidelity would have cheapened that because I do think that there are deeper infidelities: the small ways people compromise.
But she loved Legend. I really admire her. Thereafter he spent about a third of the year there, visiting his father, who stuck it out through every lonely winter because all he really wanted to be was a hunter and fisherman. He gave his son his first gun when he was just seven: a rifle powerful enough to kill squirrels, if he hit them in the right spot. Other weapons followed.
By the time he was nine, Vann was the proud owner of a Winchester lever-action carbine, the kind of rifle you see in westerns. At 11 he used it to kill his first buck. Its eyes — "large, brown eyes" — were still open. Did he know how unhappy his father was? There was one time when he was crying in a hotel room, and I knew that something was really wrong, that he was out of control. It was scary. Even so, when it came to it [his suicide], it was a real shock. In my story "Ichthyology" [the first tale in Legend of a Suicide], I write that I knew where he was headed.
It just sounds pretty to say that. He could never match the thought of who he was supposed to be with who he was: the husband, the father, the son. The disconnect was the problem. Plus, he had broken up two marriages, and that caused guilt, which fuelled a lot of self-pity, and he was really lonely, in Alaska, in the middle of winter. March Sixty degrees fahrenheit below. No neighbours, no furniture.
For the first three years, I told everyone he had died of cancer. By day, he was a straight-A student, a boy who appeared to be coping with his loss so well that his mother, a school counsellor, believed he had no need of help, of therapy. Sometimes, hidden in trees, he would even look at people through his sight: "A man with the curtains open, the crosshairs on his chest, a shell in the chamber, the scope powerful enough that I could see him swirl the drink in his hand.
He thinks it was born of a fear of loss of consciousness, of loss of control. Did he think he might one day spiral down just like his father? For 20 years, I had a feeling of doom. The full Anglo-Saxon meaning of it. That was my fate. Things would be bad, I would get depressed, and it would be unstoppable. I believed it. Then I lost everything when my charter sailing business went down.
It was a low point. I was in trouble. I was being chased for money. But then I realised I had no interest in killing myself at all.
So suddenly I felt very cheery. I thought: this rocks. Whatever his inner turmoil, Vann continued to do well at school, and won a place at Stanford University. After graduating he took part-time lecturing jobs there, and at Cornell. His first boat had to be towed to Morocco. He could now bag himself a professorship he currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Vann worked at Legend of a Suicide for about 10 years: from the age of 19, until he was The book then spent more than a decade in a drawer.
For reasons I have never been able to fathom — it is so obviously brilliant — no literary agent was willing to try to sell it to a publisher. Eventually, determined that it would be read in his lifetime, Vann entered it for the Grace Paley prize for short fiction. To his amazement, it won, which in turn led to its publication by a small academic publisher. Finally, in , Penguin published it in the UK.
Caribou Island will be published in eight languages and 50 countries. This tortuous and long journey to publication has left Vann with a real, and touching, sense of gratitude. Not for him the usual author complaints about book tours and annoying fans. And when I tell him how smiley he is, considering all that he has been through, his grin only widens. To me, it makes perfect sense. One has come out of the other, my book coming out of the ugliest and worst stuff.
But still, it seems that Legend of a Suicide helped him to work a lot of stuff out. Vann agrees. He reminds me of a section in Legend in which a corpse is intimately described at various stages of decay. In the case of Caribou Island, a book so amazingly gripping, I kept reading even while chopping shallots, he wanted readers to feel its momentum, to have the illusion that he had written it in a single day. Vann hopes that one day soon he will be able to make writing his full-time job, at which point, he and Nancy will move to New Zealand, and build a house on the plot of land they own there.
Every morning he will tap away at his keyboard, and every afternoon he will walk by the ocean until the sun falls out of the sky.
Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart. Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest, Caribou Island captures the drama and pathos of a husband and wife whose bitter love, failed dreams, and tragic past push them to the edge of destruction.
David Vann (writer)