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Posted on 8 Oct 2019 in Fiction |

DAVID VANN Halibut on the Moon. Reviewed by James McKenzie Watson

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David Vann turns his personal family trauma into a disturbing work of fiction. 

Most Australian readers will be unfamiliar with the name David Vann, despite the fact he’s frequently compared to literary giants like Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway in his native United States. His body of work – primal, violent, and often centred on relationships that unravel with the intensity of Greek tragedies – occupies a corner of literature perhaps too dark for the light of mainstream success to penetrate. Halibut on the Moon, his searing seventh novel, deserves to change that.

It’s important to identify from the outset the dark centre of this story: Halibut on the Moon is a tale of suicide; more specifically, of a completed suicide and the accumulated agony that drove it. It will not be a novel for everyone, but the unique circumstances that brought it to life afford it a rare and precious significance. Throughout his career, David Vann has been open about the role his father’s suicide played in shaping his literary output. Just 13 years old when his father shot himself, Vann acknowledges he’s spent a lifetime since trying to put his father’s ghost to rest. This spectre has sat unashamedly at the centre of previous novels – his multi-award-winning debut Legend of a Suicide explored a similar tragedy from a variety of angles – but never before has Jim Vann’s ghost risen so large over the page. This is because, in Halibut on the Moon, Vann recounts his father’s final days from the perspective of the man himself, foregoing the pretence of pseudonyms and blurring the line between fiction and biography.

The story is told here as it occurred in 1980. In the throes of a seemingly insurmountable depression, 39-year-old Jim Vann travels to California, where he puts himself in the care of his younger brother, Gary. It’s clear from the outset that despite Gary’s best intentions, Jim is going to make their efforts to prevent his self-destruction extremely difficult, so untethered has he become from hope, meaning and the world around him. As Gary ferries the increasingly erratic Jim between visits to his therapist, parents and children, Jim regresses ever further into the wilderness of his head.  The seeming intractability of his condition is exemplified by blunt conversations he has with Gary early in the novel:

‘It would be so easy,’ Jim says. ‘It would just be so easy, at any moment, and think about how long a day is, how many moments in every single day, and the nights even longer. No one around at night. Only me.’

‘Please,’ Gary says, his voice really pleading, desperate. ‘Please try. I know you can get back to your old self.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Jim says. ‘I’m not trying to hurt you. But there is no old self. There’s nothing to go back to. That’s what people don’t understand.’

 Similarly, his despondent inner dialogue reflects a clear-eyed hopelessness right from the start:

How is it he knows so little at almost forty? His birthday is in three months, if he makes it that long, but he knows he won’t. He’ll die at thirty-nine, a more awkward number. They’ll say he was forty, just to keep it simple, or ‘almost forty.’

There’s no denying that Halibut on the Moon is an intensely uncomfortable read. Much of it unashamedly grinds against a narrative about how to depict suicide in the media that has, for good reason, prevailed in recent years: you don’t dissect and display the reasoning that leads to it in such a light that it might inspire others to copy the act. But how do you truthfully explore the mind of a man on the brink of self-destruction without doing that? For Jim Vann to be convinced that suicide is the answer, we must be too – or at least, be convinced that he was convinced. Reading Halibut on the Moon requires an ability to juggle two truths at once: on the one hand, suicide is always avoidable and treatment is always available. On the other, Jim Vann was a real man who felt this was the only solution.

Among the cast of characters is a 13-year-old David Vann. Alongside his mother, sister and grandparents – all named and described true to life – young David watches his father’s self-destruction from a distance. There’s never any suggestion that this novel is anything but Vann recounting and imagining the days before his father’s death as best he can, and so the scenes that feature his young self are especially hard to read. This is not just because the writing is so honest, but because one can’t help but wonder how Vann could have put himself through this and emerged intact.

Vann appeared at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May 2019. In discussing this novel, he said that a friend had called him after reading it to check that he was okay, given the darkness of the book. Vann laughed and insisted he was, but it’s not hard to see why those close to him would be concerned. Vann’s ability to empathise – and he insists it is empathy, denying that he himself had ever experienced suicidality – is nothing short of profound. His depiction is excruciatingly complete, chronicling the downward spiral of his protagonist with a harrowing degree of insight and honesty. There’s potential for it to be used in mental health education and awareness, so understandable is its depiction of mental illness. And to answer the well-meaning critics who would denounce this book on the grounds that it glorifies suicide: there is nothing glorious about the demise Vann depicts. This book is to suicide what Saving Private Ryan was to war.

Halibut on the Moon has the power to inspire a life-changing degree of empathy. Read it not just because it’s an astonishing literary achievement, but because doing so will give you painful but important insights into mental illness and suicidality. You or someone you know might one day be very glad you did.

David Vann Halibut on the Moon Text Publishing 2019 PB 261pp $29.99

James McKenzie Watson writes short and novel-length fiction. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. Find him at and follow him on Twitter @JamesMcWatson

You can buy Halibut on the Moon from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.