Book Review: Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

James Arbuthnott

Halibut on the Moon is a tragic biographical fiction on divorce, the nuclear family, maleness, guns and suicidal depression.
Book Review: Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

Former Guggenheim fellow and celebrated author David Vann attempts to relive his father’s last days of suicidal depression in Halibut on the Moon. It’s a tragic biographical novel on divorce, the nuclear family, maleness, guns and the middle-class, midlife crisis. It follows the insolvent and cynical Jim Vann, based on the author’s own father, who became a dentist, had a family, went to church and liked to shoot guns. Jim wanted to be a fisherman but it didn’t work out, and was living in Alaska as a ‘vacation father’ until his therapist sent him to California to be with family.

Jim, the antihero father, kept a Magnum in his duffel bag. His ex-wife’s parents died by murder-suicide and she says when she saw the Magnum, she knew it was for her. Vann occupies readers with his signature melancholic and humorous prose throughout Halibut on the Moon, following the nihilistic stages of depression as his father shuns social norms, starts arguments and swears in front of his children while medication and isolation pry loose his grip on reality.

‘Don’t forget me,’ he says. ‘Try to remember our best times, out hunting or fishing or skiing, wrestling on the carpet or playing pinochle. Think of times when I was happier, not the way I am now okay?’

This isn’t the first time Vann has written about the events surrounding his father’s suicide, with Legends of a Suicide and Caribou Island exploring his family’s dark history and both finding critical success. But Halibut on the Moon is the first from his father’s perspective, with an apology in the Acknowledgements claiming, ‘the thin excuse that I can’t do anything else.’

Vann’s attempt to get to know his father through fiction makes for a stimulating premise, and themes of this nature are not foreign to the author who has been published in 23 languages and appeared in 83 Best Books of the Year in a dozen countries.

Since exploring and fictionalising family tragedy hasn’t affected Vann’s talents in the past, it’s difficult to explain why his characters and narrative lose momentum towards the end of this book. Perhaps it’s more truth than fiction, or possibly Vann’s action-man novelist style prefers minimal descriptions of emotion and painful circumstances.

While admirers of Vann’s style won’t necessarily be let down and those following his family’s fictional and biographical lineage may be able to tie up some loose ends, Vann’s less-is-more approach to emotional and tragic events lacks persuasion.

3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781925773514
Category: Fiction

Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
 Release Date: 2 April 2019
RRP: $29.99

About the author

James Arbuthnott is a regional journalist in the Campaspe area, Victoria and book reviewer at ArtsHub Australia. Twitter: @we_forgot