by James Bernard Frost
As could only happen in Portland, Oregon, my book reading tomorrow happens to coincide with another book reading half a block away. If I had to choose between the two readings (and unfortunately, I don't get to choose), I would, no doubt, attend William Vollman's.
(I have a sneaking suspicion that the Portland Mercury is going to say the same thing tomorrow in its weekly shrine to snark. Oh well, at least they're paying me some attention.)
This isn't self-deprecation either; this is cold fact. William Vollman is the king of experiential writing. This is a man who travelled with the muhjadeen in Afghanistan (this was way back when the muhjadeen were "good," as they were fighting off the Soviets), who has ridden box cars with hobos up and down the West Coast, who has passed around a crack pipe with prostitutes in the Tenderloin, and who has just published a book in which he has traveled to the far corners of the earth on a mission to interview the poorest people he could, and ask them the question "Why do you think you're poor?"
What to me makes this more noble, is that he has done this solely out of an overdeveloped spirit of inquiry. Vollman is no Kerouac. This isn't some adventurous Dharma mission he's on that ropes in the chicks. There is very little sense that he does these things out of fun. Vollman himself is not the dashing, thrill-seeking sort--he is short, stubby, and wears very thick glasses. Like all great writers, Vollman has a desperate need to answer the question "why?," and in his quest to do so he puts himself in precarious and dangerous situations, far beyond what I would ever be willing to do for a story.
Now lest the syrup get too thick, I find Vollman's writing to be overly philosophical, and I've never been able to finish an entire one of his books. (This may say more about me than about him...) I love the essays that appear from time to time in Harper's, and he's a sharp cultural critic, but his novels tend to lack plot and I have too short an attention span for his sort of writing.
I'd love to sit down with him over a beer one night, though, and ask him just how he does it. I can subject myself to the guilty pleasure and nasty addiction of online gaming to write a novel, but gun-toting religious nuts and crack-whores? I don't know... they're harder to escape.