What David Vann’s ill-fated “career at sea” taught him about his father’s suicide

In A Mile Down: the True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea, Vann explores the nature and legacy of mental illness.

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According to the experts, suicide is almost always an irrational act. Depression, in most cases, probably impairs the capacity for rational thought. Very few suicidal people leave any sort of note. To sit down and write a message, at that moment, would seem as futile as adjusting one’s alarm clock. The American writer David Vann was 13 in 1980 when his father, a failed Alaskan dentist and hapless commercial fisherman, blew his head off while talking on the phone to his second wife. For 15 years, Vann remained furious with his father; by his self-annihilation, James Vann had exposed his loved ones to intense guilt, and, no doubt, to feelings that they had failed because they could not read the “signs” of his suffering.

Vann’s first book of fiction, the celebrated Legend of a Suicide, published in 2008, explored that suicide and its aftermath. A doomed father-son relationship unravels in a remote corner of Alaska, with fatal consequences. No quantity of police reports, autopsy inquiries, counter-inquiries, family records and photo albums could explain this terrible mystery. To those already sick of the toils of life, however, waking up to a new day is often more than they can bear.

Vann, who teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, evidently still ponders what led his father to take his life. Maybe he had reached that phase of the disease of depression where all sense of hope had vanished and, with it, any idea of a future.

These and other weighty themes were also explored in Vann’s A Mile Down – his first book, written before Legend of a Suicide, but only now published in the UK. A memoir, it concerns the author’s ill-fated “career at sea” on board a 90-foot yacht in Turkey in the late 1990s. Having paid Turkish shipbuilders to fit and refurbish the vessel, Vann is left wondering if a suicidal tendency might be transmitted down the generations like a dangerous gene. His time spent sailing on the Aegean is fraught with such misfortune and, at times, plain horror that it is a wonder he came out of it alive. His chief shipbuilder, a Turk named Seref, is palpably a crook. (“I built this boat for you like it is my own boat,” he tells Vann, like a Carry-On foreigner. “Do you like your boat?”)

In spite of the warning signs, Vann nurtures an ambition to take foreigners on classical tours of the Mediterranean, and for a while it seems like a good idea. A classicist friend agrees to give shipboard courses on Homer. What could be more idyllic than The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, unfolding in a radiant real time of rawhide sandals, brine-soaked mariners and bronze shinguards? Sailing past real-life classical locations such as the Pillars of Hercules, Homeric images of dripping oar blades and pitchers of shining wine seem as real to Vann’s erudite passengers as they did to Homer’s audience 3,000 years ago.

However, things start to go wrong when chunks of expensive paint are seen to peel off the hull and the cheap wood laminate buckles. Then, sixty miles off the coast of Casablanca, the yacht almost capsizes after the rudder falls away. (“I can’t possibly express to you how disappointed I am in this boat,” Vann emails Seref later.) A Moroccan coast-guard helicopter arrives, but has no radio and is unable to communicate in the stormy weather. Eventually, the boat is taken in tow by a German freighter; by a fluke, no one was drowned.

More mishaps ensue as the 32-year-old Vann borrows huge sums of money in order to finance further, ill-fated marine business ventures. A replacement rudder also falls off: inevitably, he becomes depressed. Although his low moods on board ship might be construed as a precursor to suicidal behaviour, not everyone afflicted by hopelessness takes his own life. A Mile Down, for all its manifest bleak tone, concludes hopefully that the abyss where Vann feared he might have been heading was a chimera. The comfort offered by Socrates – that death brings an end to pain – holds no allure. “I was not my father, and I no longer had to fear repeating his suicide.” Rarely has a memoir combined such raw self-exposure with such ultimately consoling insight. 

A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea by David Vann is published by Heinemann (240pp, £18.99)

This article appears in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle

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