THE ROYAL FAMILY by William T. Vollmann (Viking, 780 pages, $40).
There are three things you can do with this unconscionably massive and often mesmerizing novel and all are worth doing: 1) you can read it. 2) You can attempt to read it. 3) You can read around in it -- sample it, as the hip-hoppers say. This, at the very least, is a literary acquaintance America-at-large needs to make. William T. Vollmann may be, at the moment, the great writer's writer in America. Whenever the best writers -- David Foster Wallace, say -- are asked whom they admire, Vollmann's name is almost certain to come up. Writers become writer's writers because their prose styles are phenomenally precise and supple (Grace Paley, Henry Green, Raymond Carver) or they are thrillingly, hair-raisingly excessive (Angela Carter, William Gaddis, Vollmann.) Either way they have an integrity that is almost frightening.
Vollmann certainly does. His books -- often large, sometimes gigantic, always original -- are relentless investigations of experience among the damned, dispossessed, homeless and hapless. He isn't, like Crane or Dreiser or Frank Norris, a visitor to urban hell on a day pass, but seems, like Genet or Celine, an inhabitant of it and maybe even an active voting citizen. This is not a journalist who goes Down There on assignment; this is a writer who courts damnation out of a self-exile that no journalist or academic would ever be likely to understand. And he writes about it by the ream.
In this 800-page book (he says, probably not in jest, that he cut his royalties rather than cut the book), a guilt-and-grief-crazed private investigator named Henry Tyler searches through the whores of San Francisco's Tenderloin district for a "Queen of Whores." In the classic American literary social arrangement, he works for the corrupt and dwells among the lowest of the low. What he finds is hallucinatory, drug-soaked degradation and redemption in the class beneath the underclass. The story is told, like Gaddis' "J.R.," mostly in dialogue from a platoon of voices.
It's the kind of maximal novel in which 250-pages in, we are treated to "an essay on bail," 370 pages in we get a plan for a hallucinatory Vegas casino called "Feminine Circus" that's "alive with gambling, monkeys and tigers," and 500-pages in a sudden meditation on Tolstoy and authority. It is willful, annoying and, by self-definition, too much. (Earlier Vollmann books like "The Rainbow Stories" and "The Atlas" are easier to navigate.)
He is, at 40, an important writer, one who deserves to be widely known, if not exactly universally embraced (embracing Vollmann completely would require an obsessiveness equivalent to Vollmann's own).
THE LAW OF AVERAGES, New and Selected Stories by Frederick Barthelme (Counterpoint, 364 pages, $25).
"The idea" says Frederick Barthelme, "came to me in the form of a barbecued chicken of the type you buy precooked at the grocery store. I bought one, one summer day. And it amazed me. I was thrilled by how wonderful and grotesque this prefab, plastic-wrapped, aluminum-panned, shrinking, falling-apart, sweet-smelling chicken was. Somehow it was the culture. Delighted, in some kind of swoon about this exquisite chicken, I sat right down and started writing 'Shopgirls.' . . . I'd finally dealt with the problem that faces any writer who has a much more famous writer as a brother -- I stumbled upon a kind of work that had its own virtues and could not be confused with his. This was no small feat. At that time, Don was everywhere. People were copping his stuff left and right."
Frederick Barthelme did a lot more 20 years ago than follow a barbecue chicken into a literary career completely distinct from his brother Donald's. He helped usher in a whole different kind of American story and American writer -- minimalist and utterly and shockingly everyday. "My idea -- and I can remember the thrill of this even now -- was to write about ordinary people in plain circumstances -- going to the store, dinner with neighbors, people at the pool, time in the office, camping in the backyard, sitting in the parking lot at the mall."
Others were on his wavelength -- Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, most importantly Raymond Carver. This "K-mart realist," though, was spawned by his family's avant-gardism and a younger brother's need to differentiate himself.
That the influence of his stories almost came to equal that of his brother 20 years ago is one of the merrier ironies of the literary life. (His very real recent arrest with his brother Steve for scamming a gambling casino was one of the decidedly unmerry ironies, despite its eerily fitting place in his fictional world. Charges were eventually dismissed.)
There are 29 stories in this marvelous retrospective, four of them new. People drive Celicas and Tercels here, go to the corner Sunoco station or Blockbuster or listen to Bon Jovi tapes or watch TV and wish the man resembling John Larroquette in a neighbor's yard really were Larroquette. Quiet desperation -- American literature's key of C-major -- is the home key. It's ordinary life, Barthelme now says, that often isn't ordinary at all. And the stories he tells and the way they're told are anything but ordinary.
-- Jeff Simon