Hello there, Story366! Today I’m just full-on in it, the first full day of Cub Scout camp, this being Cub Scout Camp Week at Story366. If all goes well, you’re reading this sometime on July 21, 2016, the scheduled post at 9 a.m., CT. I’m not too tech-savvy, not that’s I’d need to be, but somewhere in the Missouri wilderness, I’m really hoping that these posts show up, that me getting ahead, staying up till 3 a.m. to do so, has paid off. As noted, this is Cub Scout Camp Week, meaning I’m at Scout camp with my oldest son, who’s nine and enjoys Scouting. No Internet, Wifi, or even much of a phone signal at this camp, so if you’re picturing me now, picture me, lathered in sunscreen, a Nalgene canteen at my hip, wearing a neckerchief, no short stories in sight. Sounds kind of nice, this offline bonding, and I only pray that it doesn’t rain until we leave on Saturday.
Today’s story comes to us from David Vann via his collection Legend of a Suicide: Stories, winner of a Grace Paley Prize from AWP and published by Harper Perennial. The story is called “A Legend of Good Men” and it’s about this thirteen-year-old kid whose mom dates a series of men in the years after his father commits suicide. It’s the story of two people coping with loss, one who’s trying to replace something and one who’s just trying to adjust, neither one of them having much luck.
The story starts with a near-miss death experience, one of the mom’s boyfriends, John Laine, just missing our teen hero with a shot from his rifle. This incident sets the tone for the story, and maybe for John Laine, as he doesn’t last another week as Mom’s beau. Despite the near-death incident, John Laine is a nice guy and our protagonist is fond of him. Sadly, he’s not long for this family, the mom having decided to give him the boot soon after. Our hero is not happy, but he’s become so accustomed to his mother’s jiltings, he’s equally as surprised that John Laine had lasted so long.
From there we get the mother’s full inventory of men, all the guys she’s dated since, before and after John Laine (the order of the men is key, especially pertaining to Laine). It kinds of reads like Susan Minot’s “Lust” for a while, single, concise paragraphs describing what the boy knows about all the men, little details sticking around in his head much longer than most of the men. Each guy is matched with a personality trait, a physical description, or an anecdote, how the kid seems to remember them all. He and his mom are working at cross purposes. The kid just wants a dad, but in the meantime, is more than happy to bear the brunt of the gifts these guys bring, the men using a connection to him to woo the mom; the mom keeps trying to find that replacement, a string of good, decent, worthy men, but nobody who’s going to take the place of her dead husband. That husband left her, violently and forever, and she’ll be damned if another man will leave her again: She makes sure of that by breaking up with them first, usually when things are going well. I’m no psychologist, but I think that’s a pretty good rundown of what’s going on in each of these characters’ heads.
The story, a little bit more than halfway through, takes an extreme diversion, as suddenly, they boy is breaking into his own house and walking through it like a prowler would, accessing it for valuables. He’s also suddenly using third person to describe how these “strangers” live, talking about the items in the house as if he’s never seen them before, speculating about them as if they weren’t just him and his mom. He’s even a little judgmental. It’s gutsy to shift perspective like this, even if it’s just in the kid’s first-person head, but I’ve never seen anything like it. Well done, David Vann.
What Vann makes the kid do from there really took me off guard, but is as clever and wonderful as it is surprising, a truly rash but perfect ending, making me like and admire and want to reread and share “A Legend of Good Men” quite a bit.
David Vann has a won quite a few honors for Legend of a Suicide, his debut, and the other books he’s written since. I hadn’t read him before, but I have seen this book, remember it coming out, and have seen his work in journals here and there. I’m glad to have found him and hope to delve deeper into the collection, as deeply as I’m delving into the woods as you’re reading this post.