Some books are read for insight and some for the enjoyment of a good story. Award-winning author David Vann’s new novel falls in the former category. “Halibut on the Moon,” though difficult to read, provides insight and empathy for a mentally ill man who dreams of suicide. Vann’s fictionalized account of his father’s life is raw and heartbreaking.
At the beginning, Jim Vann, a 39-year-old dentist, is descending literally and figuratively, landing in San Francisco on a flight from Fairbanks, Alaska. His younger brother Gary picks him up at SFO and they drive to Gary’s home in Sebastopol. Knowing of his brother’s depression, Gary has arranged for Jim to see a psychiatrist who prescribes an unnamed medicine and instructs Gary not to leave Jim alone.
The novel follows Gary and Jim as they visit their parents, Jim’s kids and his oldest friend. Part of its tension derives from how the characters fail to connect.
Jim has come to California to review the course of his life and say goodbye before he commits suicide; Gary believes Jim has returned to get help and feel love and support from his family. But the family doesn’t understand, or address, Jim’s illness.
On the surface, Jim’s problems are apparent. He has two ex-wives, two confused children and a $365,000 debt to the IRS. But Jim seems less bothered by these facts than by intense irrational thoughts haunting his inner life. He lives in a dark tunnel that light and love rarely reach.
How he arrived in this downward spiral of mental illness is not known; no doubt a storm of factors starting with lousy luck in the genetic lottery.
His parents are remote, distant and simple. When Gary and Jim arrive at their childhood home on the shores of Clear Lake, Jim’s hostility is apparent. He says to his mother, “You look old now, and you’re bigger, and you have that loose neck.” To his father, “Have you been fat that long?”
No one engages as they eat lunch. His mother says grace, “Please help my boy Jim. Help guide him and comfort him and make your love clear. Help get us all through this difficult time.” Jim blurts back, “Where do I get this feeling that I’m a piece of s—-?”
Jim’s parents believe their son’s troubles derive from moral shortcomings, not a mental illness.
And when Jim starts a manic rant, Gary exclaims, “All you have to do is stop.” Jim wishes he could, but it is not that easy. Early in the novel, he says, “Why does anyone think they can control what they feel?”
Carrying his gun, thinking about sex and considering suicide all comfort Jim’s troubled mind. He tells Gary of a NASA experiment when astronauts took a halibut to the moon: “They didn’t mean for it to survive. It was supposed to have one beautiful flight, is all. That’s all any of us are meant to have. None of us survive.”
David Vann’s artistic rendering of his father’s struggle must have helped to repair his own heart.
Writing dialogue that captures the wild gyrations of Jim’s mind, Vann reveals the unrestrained euphoria and crushing depression that define Jim’s exhausting existence.
Generously sharing a poignant, powerful story, Vann’s evocative words help us understand the erratic and illogical thinking associated with mental illness; we become witnesses to a man stuck in a tunnel of pain while his helpless family cannot reach him.
Katherine Read blogs at https://readsreading.blogspot.com.
Halibut on the Moon
Written by: David Vann
Published by: Grove Atlantic
Note: Vann appears at 6 p.m. April 16 at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F.