Fish Story 

David Vann's new collection mixes tenderness with blood, guts, and seawater.

Watching his dentist-turned-fisherman father veer closer and closer to suicide, the adolescent narrator of David Vann's short story "Ichthyology" "sensed, with the assurance children have, that he would not be my father much longer." His latest relationship crumbling, in debt to the IRS, having lost $100,000 in a single screwed-up halibut season, the doomed man "had entered the last beautiful, desperate, far-ranging circlings of his life."

Vann's own father killed himself when Vann was young — so it was both easy and hard to write about how the distraught fictional Jim "took his '44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern" of the boat he was about to lose, then "spattered himself among the entrails of salmon." Jim's sad story replays from various angles throughout Vann's collection Legend of a Suicide, which was shortlisted for the Story Prize and is one of The New York Times' hundred Notable Books of 2008. "What I love about writing most is its power to transform the worst moments of a life into something redeemed and even sometimes lovely," reflects the author, who will be at Books Inc. (1344 Park St., Alameda) on Thursday, January 29. "I tried for a long time to write about my father's suicide, and the attempts were all too direct, too thin, too mean." Finding inspiration in Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, he wrote "Ichthyology" in less than 24 hours, "after years of failure." It's the most strictly autobiographical tale in a book whose crowning novella, "Sukkwan Island," features spot-on renderings of a head blown off — only this time, the head isn't Jim's. Vann brings a rare and irresistible elegance to viscera, as in this description of a boy's aquarium: "Everything in human life was to be found in that tank. Yellow-and-black angelfish floated delicately by, all glamour and glitz, while behind them trailed their waste in streamers. Suckers at the bottom of the tank ate this waste, spat it out in disgust, and roved on." Within minutes of being placed into the tank, two new fish drew up on either side of another that had particularly protuberant eyes. The new arrivals "were slick and merciless and knew how to work as a team. In one quick flash each went for an eye and sucked it out. They didn't even swallow, but let the round, billiard-ball eyes float dreamily down to the rocks."

For the author, "the worst and most debilitating parts of suicide bereavement faded over time, but I'm shocked by how the love remains. I still love my father, as much as I did while he was alive, and I have no idea how that can happen. I don't understand how it's possible almost thirty years later." Just summoning these words, he says, "brings tears. And how can that be?" 7:30 p.m.


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