William T. Vollmann Made Me A San Franciscan

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One of the more anticipated summer novels of the season is also probably one of the longest, most disturbing and most intimidating: Imperial, William T. Vollman’s mammoth exploration of the U.S.-Mexican border in Imperial County, CA. Clocking in at about 1300 pages the hardcover edition will retail for $55.oo and probably take more than the rest of the summer to read, and more than two more winters to fully digest and appreciate. That’s how it goes with Vollmann though.

Vollmann’s written output is beyond astonishing. He is featured briefly in the latest print edition of Poets And Writers magazine in which Anthony Miller attempts to tabulate the total number of published pages that can be attributed to the inhuman pen of William T. Vollmann. He comes up with something like nearly 14,000 pages scattered throughout almost fifteen books and counting, most of which seem to revolve around two separate yet distinctly interconnected themes: historical encounters between indigenous Americans and European colonizers and today’s global subcultures of violence, war, prostitution, and destitution as they are lived out on every single continent. And everything he writes about, Vollmann tends to substantiate with first-hand research, whether it means spending a fortnight at the magnetic North Pole or befriending prostitutes in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

When people see Vollmann speak they tend to ask him about his most controversial obsession: prostitutes. And the fact he smoked crack for research with a hooker. When I saw him at The Booksmith four years ago, more than one person seemed insistent on reviling him for his fetishisation of prostitutes and that, in fact, it amounted to a sort of pathetic, misogynistic fascination worthy of a teenage boy. In truth, many of his novels and short-story collections, like The Royal Family, Whores For Gloria, The Butterfly Stories are based largely on the lives of prostitutes, especially the ones in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Mission District as well as prostitutes in Southeast Asia. Whether his portrayals of them are misogynistic is very much up to the reader. Personally, I do not believe Vollmann is guilty, but that genetically he cannot but be attracted to the darkest side of humanity, especially where sex and money collide. He discusses some of this in a fantastic 2005 interview with Bookslut.

My high point in reading Vollmann came with his darkly erotic and disturbing San Francisco epic, The Royal Family which does indeed hinge on the day-to-day lives of San Francisco prostitutes. But it’s also much more than that, or else I wouldn’t be as enthralled by it as I still am. It’s about doomed love, suicide, adventure, Cain and Abel, bail, detective work, Geary Street, money, Las Vegas, beauty, molestation, religion, train-hopping, social outcasts, circuses, etc., etc. It’s kind of like an extremely nightmarish noir in an elegant (most of the time) train wreck with a William Burroughs novel and it goes at mostly full steam for about 800 pages.

I was reading it on my lunch break when I was working in a run-down, plywood office inside a construction company that was down a particularly feces-and needle-strewn alley in San Francisco’s South Of Market district. It was only a short walk, passed liquor stores and porn stores, to our notoriously bad Sixth Street where, once a week, I ate lunch at the counter at Tu Lan, read The Royal Family and watched the parade of junkies, drunks, prostitutes, vagrants and wastrels that constantly weaved and hobbled passed the open door. Then I’d walk back to work, step over a passed-out drunk, wipe rat droppings off my keyboard and get back to work: yelling at real estate agents for ten dollars an hour.

Later in the year, when I moved to Capp Street, (which features prominently in The Royal Family), and my favorite bar had carjackers and prostitutes lurking outside its barred windows and my house got broken into by a man who left his crackpipe at the scene and our garage got rented out to a meth-addled ex-con named Sharky, I was better prepared for everything.  Thanks to William T Vollmann, San Francisco made more sense to me and I took it all in stride. Well, sort of.


Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →