‘An incredibly candid character exploration’ – A Mile Down by David Vann

amddvBefore he was hailed as ‘one of the best writers of his generation’ (and rightly so, in my opinion), David Vann had a dream of giving up his day job and building a business as the captain of a boat offering educational tours to some of the world’s most picturesque places. He imagined buying his own sailing ship, fixing it up and touring the world.

And he did it. While on holiday in Turkey, he found the perfect steel frame around which he could build a ninety-foot sailboat. He persuaded family and friends to invest $150,000, and went into business for himself. He was going to make his dream come true.

The whole time, however, he was mindful of his father’s fate. He’d tried a similar venture with a fishing boat, and when the business turned bad, Vann’s father killed himself.

This venture with the sailboat charters would be different. There was a demand. This business wouldn’t fail.

And then it did. Big time.

Everything that could go wrong went wrong. And then it got worse. The Turkish builders ripped him off so that he had to borrow more money. War broke out in Kosovo and his customers decided they didn’t want to travel to Turkey anymore. That demand suddenly disappeared, so he decided to sail across the Atlantic to take on charters in Mexico.

They hit a storm on the way, and things started to break and fall off. He and his crew had to abandon ship, and a ruthless freighter captain tried to claim his boat for salvage. Vann didn’t make it past Gibraltar.

Then, just when he needed money to pay for repairs, he found out that the staff running his business in the US hadn’t paid his bills on time. His credit rating plummeted. He had no option but to file for bankruptcy.

If this was fiction, you could think he was pushing the limits of realism too far. For so much to go wrong in such a short space of time would be taking the story into the realms of the fantastic. But A Mile Down is a memoir, and all of it is true.

And it doesn’t end there. After all that, he does it again. He decides to go back to Gibraltar to fix up the same ship and sail it across the Atlantic, still with those memories of how his father, at around the same age, had shot himself when the stress became too much.

Some of what Vann went through to save his ship verged on the suicidal. Throughout the story, he wonders if he’s destined to the same fate as his father, or is he trying too hard to prove he’s different.

Any Cop? A Mile Down is a gripping story and an incredibly candid character exploration. And Vann writes so well that even the technical details are a joy to read.

 

Jim Dempsey


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