First published:- 2000
Some books are very obviously flawed, contrived in ways which slow down the reader's progress and heavily tax his/her ability to dredge up empathy over the headache-inducing frenzy of loaded work-weeks. And yet these narratives are so divine in their earnestness, so far-reaching in their scope, that you are filled with this overwhelming, earth-shattering zeal to shower them with a holy love and not let even a drop of your skepticism dilute your admiration for the writer's boldness. Your cowardice and inaction dictate you honor his unstated wish and this is the least you can do anyway. Embrace it all - the two-faced treachery perpetuated by the torchbearers of civilization, the endless cycle of degradation and corruption and the myriad sorrows of all the characters which bleed into its pages. Take one swig after another from the truth flask until you have been purged of all your self-indulgent guilt-trips and left with nothing but a crushing hopelessness which devours all other emotions with a vindictive fury.
There's us, cocooned in the warm illusion of security, dissecting the politics of injustice from our ivory towers, wholly in denial of our bubble of happiness feeding off the despair of others. In an effort to scramble toward whatever glamourous concept of affluence it is we consider salvation, we do not see the charred wreckage of lives strewn all around.
There's the woman of flesh and bone who becomes a grotesque assimilation of mere genitals, who can only be an abstract embodiment of the abuse with no human face - a walking, breathing cunt for hire whose existence you acknowledge only when you require its use. Every once in a while she leaves crack-addicted babies with no fathers in the maze of foster care or dumps them like inanimate blobs of flesh in seedy abortion clinics. She only lives in those documentaries harbouring Oscar-nomination ambitions, at the precipice of our segregated utopias merging with the abyss of the Tenderloins of the world. And the sanctimonious laws state with conviction, that the Tenderloins and the red light areas do not exist.
There are the hobos, the panhandlers, the bums, the destitute - not allowed to be anything other than victims of their own ineptitude, worthy of a stray sympathetic glance and a few seconds of pity, to be religiously warded off our vaunted inner sanctums. There is Henry Tyler, a pathetic loser bearing the Mark of Cain, wallowing in eternal self-pity, choosing to live as a homeless man to find his Queen, his antidote to a desiccating loneliness. And then there's the Queen of the Whores with her magical powers and her crack pipe - just an emblem, a protector, a redeemer, a guardian angel, a modern day Jesus - and law-abiding respected founder of 'Feminine Circus' Jonas Brady, with his multi-million dollar franchise of selling men the right to rape, torture, and mutilate disabled girls, her nemesis.
They are all actors in an absurd pantomime. They are all real.
'Part biblical allegory and part skewed postmodern crime novel', the blurb announces with relish. But that doesn't even skim the surface of this tome.
I call this Vollmann's gift to the perpetual outcasts of society, the ones we have pushed so far beyond the edge bit by bit in our own mad dash for the center that they exist in a kind of parallel netherworld where all humanly concerns are put to rest, where violence and deprivation are the order of the day. I call this his sincerest attempt at chronicling their stories the way they may have approved of, however alien to our feral cravings for taint-free reputations, routine and fake dignity, however repulsive to our faux-fragile sensibilities. I call this a searing critique of the hypocrisy of the ones holding the reins of the civilized world, who would sputter with mock indignation when asked to legalize prostitution.
However small or insignificant, I call this book an act of redemption.