Vann draws on his own family’s history for this affecting novel of a man grappling with deep depression.
Jim, the protagonist of this psychologically detailed novel, is a man who’s reached the limits of his life. He’s deeply in debt to the IRS, his marital history is bleak, and he’s contemplating suicide. As the novel opens, he’s traveled from Alaska to California to spend time with his family—notably, his younger brother, Gary, who seems to have succeeded in all of the areas where Jim has come up short. “Jim envies his younger brother, not only his youth and looks and the women but also his simplicity,” Vann writes early on, and this neatly establishes a contrast between the two men. As Jim revisits people who have known him for much of his life, a gradual tension emerges in their interactions. Is he there to seek relief for his depression or to cut ties with those closest to him, pushing them away before the end of his life? Given its subject matter, this is not an easy read. Vann’s portrait of a man convinced that his course of self-destruction is inevitable makes for numerous chilling and unsettling moments. There is also an element of autofiction present here: One of Jim’s children shares the author’s name, and Jim and Gary spend time discussing the origins of their surname. What endures the most from this novel is the sense of desperation that emerges from its central character—a feeling that’s at once profoundly alienated from everything and everyone around it and heartbreakingly tactile.
A moving portrait of a family dealing with loss before it happens and of the harrowing ways depression can disrupt countless lives.