William T. Vollmann is the author of ten novels, including Europe Central, which won the National Book Award. He has also written four collections of stories, including The Atlas, which won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a memoir, and six works of nonfiction, including Rising Up and Rising Down and Imperial, both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, Granta, and many other publications.
Jimmy, a down-and-out Vietnam vet, spends his disability checks drinking in skid row bars and paying streetwalkers to tell him their life stories. Later, alone in his hotel room, he reassigns the memories he has collected to Gloria, his imaginary girlfriend. In his 1989 collection The Rainbow Stories ( LJ 6/15/89), Vollmann himself wandered the streets of San Francisco paying prostitutes for talk. Apart from the heartbreaking frame-story of Jimmy, this new book seems to consist of outtakes from the earlier book--gritty scenes of almost surreal depravity and squalor. Unfortunately, Vollmann the urban anthropologist subverts the efforts of Vollmann the novelist. In the end, one wishes he had devoted less space to the whores and more to Jimmy and his hallucinatory quest for love. A minor work by an important author.-- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
This brief novel by the gifted Vollmann ( You Bright and Risen Angels ) finds Jimmy, a drifter in San Francisco's Tenderloin demimonde since his discharge from service in Vietnam in the late '60s, struggling with a feminine ideal given the name Gloria. In his mind, she assumes the identities of wife, ex-wife, virgin, whore, representing an abstracted need which Jimmy must fill. And so he vows, ``Starting now and for the rest of his life he was going to work at seeing Gloria and remembering her.'' His main means: engaging prostitutes (including transvestites) for sex and storytelling. Based on their tales of their lives, he cerebrally romances each into a more or less palpable vision of his beloved. Jimmy's possession of Gloria is realized by Chapter 28, yet it is also strongly implied that Gloria never existed. The concluding Chapter 29 (exuberant and vivid, it contains the finest writing in the book), however, blows this hypothesis away, as it does Jimmy. So coy and nondefinitive are the work's main parameters that the heart of the matter--erotic, moral, psychological--remains beyond our grasp; akin to a piano sonata with variations, the novel raises new and different expectations not altogether fulfilled. (Jan.)