Before we discuss humanitarian vagabond and literary enfant terrible William T. Vollmann, let's try something. Which, if any, of the following outlandish statements is true of Vollmann's career as a novelist and self-proclaimed "hack journalist"?
A) Vollmann once bought a 10-year-old Thai prostitute out of servitude.
B) In 1982, Vollmann spent several weeks in Afghanistan with the mujahideen, fighting against the Soviet army.
C) Vollmann camped out at the magnetic North Pole for two months in order to relive the hardships of the Franklin Expedition.
D) To understand the circumstances of prostitutes working San Francisco's Tenderloin district, Vollmann picked up a crack habit.
E) All of the above.
If you answered E, you know your Vollmann. If you think it's a wonder he's still alive, you should take a gander at his massive body of work, which is dotted with novels, historio-fictional epics and literary war reports, not to mention the monumental Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3,300-page, seven-volume treatise on violence.
His aptly titled latest, Poor People (Ecco Books, 294 pages, $29.95), is no exception to the grand scope that categorizes his work, nor does he stray from his extraordinary research methods. With the same persistent solicitude he's used to question strippers, skinheads and African warlords, Vollmann approached some of the most destitute people in the world and asked them, "Why are you poor?" From the mouths of Kazakh snow-shovelers, Russian Chernobyl survivors and indentured Chinese prostitutes, the answers range from "It is the will of Allah" to "I think I am rich"; still, a cohesive portrait of the world's impoverished people emerges. The interviews are tender, almost to a fault; of one woman, he woefully notes, ''She had flaccid, smelly flesh and wide brown eyes; she fell asleep in my lap and there were lice in her beautiful brown hair.''
It would be a mistake to read this book under the assumption that Vollmann has a concrete solution to offer; despite his earnest statistics and discussion of international aid policy, he has no illusions about his role—he's just a writer—within the knotty web of world politics. The best he can do is write, and well: the result is a profoundly literary work. Though the book doesn't have much of a story line, Vollmann's characters—Colombian slum children, displaced Thai homeowners and the American homeless—are oppressed by forces more malevolent than any author could invent, and they populate a narrative that is as complex as it is true, alternately hopeful and barren, and more potent than any fiction. CLAIRE EVANS.