by William T. Vollmann
A Book That Will Make You Feel Rich
A review by Ryan D'Agostino
Here is one thing you should know about William Vollmann: Esquire once hired him to write a story about the Khmer Rouge, but he blew off the assignment and went whoring across southeast Asia instead. (We published it anyway.) Here is another thing: Four years ago, he released a seven-volume manifesto (3,352 pages) on the subject of violence, which was his 13th book. Number 14, the novel Europe Central, won the National Book Award in 2005.
That's some perspective with which to examine Poor People, Vollmann's concise (294 pages!) essay on poverty. He uses the same reporting tactic that led him to the hookers, pushers, strippers, and fighters who have populated his previous works: He shows up someplace -- the grimy parking lot behind his home in Sacramento, an oil town in Kazakhstan, a Thai village -- and talks to strangers. Here, the strangers are poor, and he asks them why they are poor. Just straight-up asks.
As Vollmann struggles to make sense of their poverty, he writes with a reporter's frank detail and a novelist's grace.
"Just as men carry boxes upstairs, while fat, crater-faced women sell sugarcane juice in plastic bags, just as foreigners
swarm sweaty-haired or heat-defiant in the most expensive districts, just as schoolgirls in white blouses and blue miniskirts wait together for the buses, so poor people know that they were poor before they were even born," he writes from Thailand. Vollmann obviously cares deeply about the problem of poverty; he offers a few solutions and asks some important questions. But in the end, you get the sense that the way
he really thinks he can help poor people is by reminding us that they're alive.
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