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Opening the heart and refusing to tidy up

When I first read the title of William T. Vollmann's new book, "Poor People," I thought that he was trying to console his readers: "Oh, you poor people"!

It is an understandable mistake. Vollmann, who seems to produce books more by the pound than by the page, has been dropping them on us for the past 15 years like giant smart bombs, as if to smash down our fortifications. "The Atlas" (1996), his introductory tour of the world's fleshpots, weighed in at 496 pages, which was modest compared with what was to come. "Argall" (2001), his "true story" of Captain William Smith and Pocahontas, written in a voice that mimics Smith's own Elizabethan English, lumbered in at a crushing 768 pages.

"Europe Central" (2005), his short story collection centering on the crisis of Europe during the years of Hitler and Stalin, needed a forklift at 832 pages, while "Rising Up and Rising Down" (2003), his philosophical treatise on political violence, came out initially as a seven-volume boxed set of some 3,300 pages, which got rendered down for the commercial market to a svelte 752 pages.

That doesn't mean that at an anorexic 313 pages plus pictures "Poor People" is bedside reading. There is something viscous and swampy about any Vollmann production, and the reader who picks up "Poor People" should bring along hip waders and several changes of dry clothing, since Vollmann is going to take you on long treks through the global muck. He has been a world traveler ever since setting out for Afghanistan at the age of 22 to fight alongside the Mujahedeen against the Soviets.

That adventure gave him "An Afghanistan Picture Show; or, How I Saved the World" (1992), and subsequent trips have taken him to such danger zones as Cambodia, Yemen, Pakistan, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Congo, Colombia, Bosnia, even the magnetic North Pole, travels he began examining in his 1996 book, "The Atlas: People, Places, and Visions."

"Poor People" takes up where "The Atlas" leaves off: on Vollmann's world-wretchedness tour, from Bangkok to Bogota to New York. His purpose is to show us a world we normally refuse to see unless it pulls a gun on us. (At home in Sacramento, Calif., Vollmann sometimes carries a 9mm pistol.) He introduces us to Sunee, an alcoholic cleaning lady in Thailand; to the Sokolovas in Russia, who earn their livings by begging and by means unknown; to Big Mountain and Little Mountain, two homeless men living under a bridge along the Kamogawa River in Kyoto.

On another trip to Japan, he cajoles an obliging Yakuza (Japanese mafia) into introducing him to some "Snakeheads," members of the Chinese pimp cartel that shanghais girls to work in the Japanese sex industry. The Snakeheads never show up.
In Hanoi he buys lunch for an itinerant bookseller, who hawks English phrasebooks on the street. He compares brothel toilets in Nairobi -- favorably -- with their counterparts in New York. And wherever he goes, Vollmann takes his camera, to capture in grainy black and white the brutality of life without money or hope.

Vollmann, who lacks the patience to fuss about style, is not always the most elegant writer going, and the reader can zone out across long deserts of pedestrian prose. Some of this book reads as if delivered by literary Caesarean section to meet deadlines. And you can cringe at Vollmann's home-brewed techniques and Marxist reflexes. Traveling the globe and asking the poorest of the poor why poverty exists and then being disappointed by the answers ("Allah knows" or "Just destiny") hardly qualifies as social research.

Vollmann sometimes sees in such answers a sign of "false consciousness," which means that a Marxist theorist can explain your life better than you can. "If Sunee," he asks about his alcoholic cleaning lady who washes floors in a corporate high rise, "who's condemned to a moderately atrocious existence, chooses not to call herself exploited, should we take her word for it?" Vollmann waits for one of his interviewees to pin the blame on globalization and multinational capitalism and the answer never comes.

But then how many people really face misery at all, let alone write about it? The book is a relentless commitment by a writer who has devoted his talents to the pursuit of the human condition in extremis.

This concern puts Vollmann in league with predecessors like Jack London, John Steinbeck and George Orwell, whom he claims, as well as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The lower depths are never low enough for Vollmann.

Thus for every low there emerges yet a lower, and Vollmann enters a plea for the special wretchedness of Colombia. Though his normal sympathies are with the bottom dogs and the dispossessed, in Bogota, Colombia, he expresses a pity for the police "for being so few and so weak against the stinking carnivorous snarls of angry poor men all over Colombia who waited everywhere wide-eyed and ready to attack rich people like you and me; sometimes they slung burlap bags over their shoulders; sometimes their teeth were broken; their breath was always foul and their hands always quick. Sometimes they leered longnecked with their heads forward like biting horses."

Indeed, the poor in his Bogota photographs show a ferocity seen nowhere else in this book of pleading faces. Clearly none of them would ever answer Vollmann's poverty question with "Allah knows!" Just as likely they'd stuff him into their burlap bags for his wallet.

There is much here to criticize, from Vollmann's tireless protestations of respect for Islam's treatment of women to the dumb-bunny question that launches him into his interviews: "Why are some people rich and some people poor?"

Never mind all that. He isn't up for feminist-of-the-year award or for a Ph.D. in sociology. The book is about Vollmann's own courage in opening his heart up to awfulness and then refusing to tidy it up for us.

Vollmann doesn't preach, but then he doesn't have to. His stories and pictures do his preaching for him.

Mark Shechner is professor at the University of Buffalo.

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>Poor People

By William T. Vollmann

Ecco, 313 pages & 128 photographs, $29.95.

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