Ockham Awards 2020: Halibut on the Moon?

The title alone of this book drew my interest.

Halibut on the Moon

David Vann has been nominated for this years' Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, on 12 May.

Confused, because he's from Alaska, I did some hunting. David Vann has lived in Northland for fifteen years and has written fifteen titles. So he's really well placed in the Ockhams, as this book is a winner.

This book is written beautifully from the opening passage:

The plane descends but there is no San Francisco to see, only cloud and rain in close over the wing, rain at hundreds of miles an hour a horizontal thing only, without fall, without anything light enough to fall. A terrific pressure, insistent, panicked, disappearing and reappearing and come from some terrible source, breath of a god in anger. (p.1)

There is an incredible sense of place in this book; both in Alaska and the U.S. with a road trip in the middle (love a good American road trip).

Nature is a vehicle for Jim's own cloud; heavy rain and the terrific pressure he is under:

...water thrown by trucks to cover the windshield, all blind and then seen again, red steel and red lights all submerged. (p.11)

I was hooked by the plot - Vann describes a depression so bad that Jim is at times paralysed by it; unable to speak, feel or move:

They were long-lining for halibut...at the edge of the Bering Sea, and the line caught on the bottom. ..the seas were thirty feet and breaking... Whenever a wave rose beneath, they were pulled down into it, pressurizing.

"You know, its a bit like that," Jim says.The depression, ...like how our boat was pulled back and as everything around it rises it only pressurizes." (p.6)

How many things does it take to drive a man to suicide? 

Jim's failed at two marriages (he's a serial cheater), owes the IRS three hundred and sixty five thousand dollars - 'a thousand dollars for every day of the year' - and has had sinus pain for most of his thirty-nine years. Oh, and he's almost forty.

Moving through all the remembered places, Jim questions his existence. Does too much thinking lead to the Dark Side?

Upon visiting his parents Jim finds his mother, unchanged but older, standing forever in her 'spot' gazing out the kitchen window; his father, in the lounge, looking at the lake.

Home the same, but smaller. Ever been back to somewhere you knew when you were a kid, and it seemed bigger?

Of course Jim blames his parents for everything: having to be a dentist, like his father, having to be religious.

His mother blames his sinus pain - a Cobain-like pain syndrome - but Jim knows the procedure is life-threatening...!

Ultimately, of course, Jim brought this situation on himself - the cheating, the tax dodges - he behaves like an over-privileged a**hole. 

Vann does great people. Jim is a whole kettle of fish and his situation is not without humour. Younger brother Gary performs as sidekick and delivers a great punch to Jim at the precise moment when I thought 'sh*t, I'd punch this guy."

Once they open up to the doubts in their own minds (and this is like getting blood from a stone), Jim's family are much more than their assumed positions.

Jim's two children play quite a major part in his life - young David disarmingly reflecting his father's gestures back at him.

His friend, John, is memorable and upbeat. Rhoda, supposedly one of the main causes of his pain, is sympathetic.

In his 'up' episodes, he gets to run around loose with a .44 Ruger (Dirty Harry) Magnum. He pretends to be a dog while out hunting with his kids; running towards a freaked out farmer, has some astute and witty observations on life and really wild visions.

This story is all about hunting. As he fights his urge to kill himself (and possibly others), Jim contemplates an upbringing of hunting, remembering all the other guns he's used and kills he's made. Will he finally become the victim of his own 'hungry' gun?

Makes me wonder who else is running around with guns.

Now back to the Halibut:

"The moon," David says. "We get to use the telescope tonight."

"They took a halibut up there once," Jim says. "NASA wanted to see how it would adapt. A big one, almost three hundred pounds, in its own special Plexiglass tank, and they set it on the ground to let it flop, to see how high it would fly."

"Imagine its white underside against the white dust and ash and sand...looking identical...and that dark topside looking like the moon from farther away..."

"The Halibut has been waiting for this meeting, waiting for millions of years, brought home, finally. Destiny. Then it hits both ends, hard, like wings, and the gravity is so much less. Even on Earth, they can launch a few feet above the deck. But on the moon, this halibut flew."

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Christchurch City Libraries