Gloomy family history

NEW YORK – In Europe, where they keep better track of Alaskan lit than we do, David Vann, whose new novel, “Caribou Island,” came out recently, is almost as well known as Jack London (who wasn’t really Alaskan) and Sarah Palin.

His last book, “Legend of a Suicide,” became a surprise best-seller in France and England, even though, spurned by agent after agent, it took 12 years to find a US publisher and then was scantily reviewed, except in The New York Times and one or two other newspapers.

Readers had trouble with the book’s format, Vann said recently – it’s a novella surrounded by five linked short stories – and some people also found the title too gloomy.

“I don’t know why I just didn’t change it,” he said. “In Germany it came out as ‘In the Shadow of the Father,’ and that would have been fine. It just never occurred to me.”

He shook his head and laughed.

“There have been some missteps,” he said.

“Legend of a Suicide” is largely autobiographical, inspired by a real-life event.

When Vann was 13, his father, a restless, dissatisfied man who had bounced around Alaska, opening one dental practice after another and failing as a commercial fisherman, put a bullet through his head while talking on the phone to his second wife, Vann’s stepmother.

“She heard parts of his head dripping from the ceiling,” Vann said. “She still can’t use the phone with that ear.”

Not long before taking his own life, Vann’s father asked his son, then entering the eighth grade, if he would spend the year homesteading with him in a wilderness cabin on a southeastern Alaskan lake.

Vann declined, and the central part of “Legend of a Suicide,” the novella “Sukkwan Island,” imagines, with a surprising twist, what might have happened if he had said yes.

Much of “Caribou Island,” the new book, is similarly set in a remote lakeside cabin – this time in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska – and it’s partly a re-imagining of something that happened 11 months before his father’s suicide, when his stepmother’s mother killed first her husband and then herself.

All told, there have been five suicides in his extended family, Vann said over lunch recently in a Manhattan restaurant, and he pointed out that real life is often far more frightening than anything that happens in novels.

“My fiction is so much cheerier,” he said.

Now 44, married with no children, Vann seems the opposite of gloom-ridden. He is frank, open, almost compulsively cheerful and jokey.

But he admitted that his history had weighed on him heavily. He felt so guilty and embarrassed that for three years he told everyone that his father had died of cancer.

Although outwardly a well-adjusted adolescent and good student, he was an insomniac who at night would ride his bike through the northern California neighbourhood where he and his mother and sister were living, shooting out streetlights with one of his father’s guns and occasionally lining up an unsuspecting neighbour in the cross hairs.

“For about 20 years I had this sense of legacy,” he said. “I was convinced that I would repeat my father’s life.

I imagined that I would get married, I would have kids, I would start cheating on my wife. I imagined my whole life would just follow my father’s script.

I felt like Oedipus – that it was all out of my control.

The feeling I had then just deserves the word doom.” A storyteller from an early age, Vann was determined to become a writer and went to Stanford, where he was a protégé of the novelist and teacher John L’Heureux, who became a sort of surrogate father.

And with L’Heureux’s encouragement he formulated what he now calls the 11-year plan: He would graduate from Stanford, get an MFA from Cornell, return to Stanford as a Stegner fellow and finish the book about his father’s suicide that he had begun when he was 19.

Vann insisted that “Caribou Island,” is not another version of “Legend of a Suicide.”

It’s not about a father and son but about a middle-aged couple locked in a grim, ruined marriage, and it has a rich cast of often comic supporting characters who seem to have wandered in from a T.C. Boyle novel: a hapless fisherman, a gold-digging tourist, a sex-hungry dentist with hardly any thoughts in his head, let alone suicidal ones.

The landscape is even more powerfully evoked than in the earlier book, and the sentences – pared-down fragments sometimes – have a different kind of urgency.

Vann said he began this book 14 years ago and then put it aside because he wasn’t comfortable with multiple points of view, and didn’t know how to deal with a longer narrative arc.

When he finally returned to it in 2009, the writing came very quickly, “like a freight train,” Vann said.

“That’s not what’s supposed to happen,” he added. “I guess my writing process is screwy. I kept returning to the landscape and to the characters, and that just allowed the story to take off. I sometimes think that an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer.”