William T. Vollmann writes in sheets of sound, creating psychosexual, historical, and theological narratives that can test patience but reward endurance. Surely the only contemporary novelist to reveal himself as a Unabomber suspect, the Sacramento-based author has had a compulsively prolific career encompassing everything from An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992), in which he recounts when he sought to join the mujahideen’s fight against the Soviets, to the 2005 novel Europe Central, which won a National Book Award for its acuity in tracing the interconnected lives of a wide cast of characters, from Hitler to Stalin, Anna Akhmatova to Dmitri Shostakovich.
His seven-volume opus Rising Up and Rising Down considered the causes and consequences of violence. More recently, two linked works, No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative, volumes 1 and 2 of Carbon Ideologies, addressed planetary extinction. And yet, Vollmann may be best known as a literary denizen of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, as recounted in his novels Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Royal Family. (A separate collection, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, depicts related material.)
Appearances to the contrary, Vollmann is not a voyeur. He’s less dystopian than Burroughs, and he eschews a performative romantic-outsider persona like Bukowski’s in favor of a fictional voice that summons Dostoyevsky in its pursuit of transcendence, travail, and sexual connection, in whatever order they occur.
Vollmann’s new book, The Lucky Star, marks a return to the San Francisco demimonde. It’s the completion of a “transgender trilogy’’ that includes The Book of Dolores (an account of the author’s experiments in cross-dressing) and the as-yet-unreleased How You Are.
Based in part on his real-life encounters in bars and alleyways, the book is a portrait of Neva, a woman with an apparently inexhaustible ability to share love, physical and emotional, with everyone she meets.
Those in her thrall include a sex worker named Shantelle; someone formerly known as Frank, now renamed after Judy Garland; a retired policeman who is Judy’s sometime lover; and Richard, an alcoholic who narrates this Grand Guignol of sex, love, and emotional displacement as it unfolds everywhere from Neva’s bedroom to the Y Bar, where these lost souls come to congregate, abuse one another, and (literally and figuratively) lick their wounds.
The telling is lubricious, but not particularly erotic. Perhaps it’s best described as over-the-top. Late in the book, Vollmann even breaks the fourth wall to include a note from his editor: “I do wonder whether some readers will simply tire, for example, of all the climaxing in the book…the descriptions of sex acts.… Does that end up having a bit of a deadening/boring effect?” A bit.
Vollmann presents Neva as a goddess who transcends the pain of childhood abuse to bestow grace on those she encounters, exorcising pain through self-abnegation and orgasm. The thread of her narrative sometimes gets lost amid the genital stimulation, the sex toys and S-M fantasies. In many ways, her role as anima serves to distract us from the author’s distance, his descent into lower depths of his own. The more clinical his descriptions, the more obvious his search. These fictional characters, and particularly Neva, are there to be worshipped, admired, and sometimes defiled—but sketchily understood or realized.
As with The Royal Family, in which a private eye was dispatched to find the Queen of the Whores, there’s a noir novel tucked inside this ironically titled work of fiction: The retired policeman is out to strip away the mysteries surrounding Neva and blow up the circle of trust she projects. Watching the detective, we know how this story ends. Neva’s fate is inevitable.
As the saga rises to its conclusion, Vollmann’s prose, largely on a lower light here than in his earlier books about the Tenderloin, soars, with Richard, like some latter-day Philip Marlowe, reflecting on life and love and loss:
“Let’s keep it light!—as Judy Garland wrote in a letter to Motion Picture, right around the time she was preparing to kill herself.… I too have gone over the hill and into the quietude, listening to the rain on Powell and Clay, the cable car wires marking time, the round potholes of dryers dark and still in the laundromat at the Parker Hotel; all the while—fuck, yeah!—I’ve kept it light! When we lay out a dead girl’s grave goods two thousand years after the fact, we’re frequently lucky enough to collect a few of her lost memories…and these, or the hope of these, keeps it light, or something. So I tried hoping; I excelled at that.’’
Paul Wilner is a poet, critic, and journalist based in Monterey County.
• By William T. Vollmann
• Viking, 672 pages, $35