William T. Vollmann: The Devil's Advocate
"Oh, I'd say I end up really liking about 90 percent of the people who interview me," William T. Vollmann says, his camouflage-clothed and -- as his portraitists are wont to remind him -- somewhat pear-shaped body comfortably seat- belted in my butterscotch-colored, bald-tired Mercury. It's a flatly lit Tuesday, and as we drift up through the grasses that wiggle and bend over the rolling-buttocked hills near Hercules in Northern California, the talk turns to the art of working the press.Somewhere up ahead lies a quiet lane tucked among shady trees in suburban Sacramento, where Vollmann -- tender novelist and freewheeling historian, hell-bound journalist (for SPIN and Esquire, mainly) and world-class lover boy (wherever he lays his head) -- makes his home."But every now and then a real jerk will come along," Vollmann continues, a smile smearing his scruffy-whiskered face. "I remember there was this one guy who thought everything I did was some kind of hoax. I ended up firing my scare pistol off right by his ear."Vollmann delights in giving reporters a taste of the dark thrills he's traveled the planet to enjoy, and when he begins to laugh his pleasant bad-boy's laugh, the wind catches his stuttery heh, heh, hehs and sucks them out of the car, into the world.I've heard that scare pistol too: Vollmann used to tote it along with him on his reading tours, blasting off a crack- crack-crack of blank rounds between passages from one or another of the 10 teeming books he has, at the age of 36, thus far published. The intended effect, he explains, was that of shock punctuation: "three shots, three dots: an ellipsis."His first novel, a scabrously satirical vision of revolutionary insects and repressive electricity combines called You Bright and Risen Angels, brought comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs; Vollmann, then 28, wrote it while working as a computer programmer during a postgraduate lull. (He graduated summa cum laude in comparative literature from Cornell.) Since then he's been awarded the prestigious Whiting Foundation Award, traveled exhaustively (sometimes 45 weeks in a year), and written dozens of stories about everything from skinhead courting rituals in San Francisco and dancing and deliquescing with Cambodian sex workers to sharing the sheets with skittery crack addicts and hiking alone to the Arctic North. (Try his Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs or The Butterfly Stories for a sampling of these endeavors.)His still in-progress Seven Dreams cycle -- a sprawling seven- novel series of historical hallucinations that detail the birth agonies of our America from the time of the Norsemen on -- has garnered comparisons to everything from Ezra Pound's Cantos to William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain. Throughout, Vollmann's documentary eye for telling details, his effortlessly flowing literary edgeplay, and his limitless compassion for margin-dwellers worldwide reinvent Nathaniel Hawthorne's caustic parables for an age of AIDS, militia movements, and dwindling hope. While his contemporaries -- David Foster Wallace, say -- dally in clever conceits and recombinant sitcomery, Vollmann writes from the desperately pumping heart of the world, his sentences winding and glistening like a trail of blood that leads off the path and into the woods."Are you packing today, Bill?""No, not today," he smiles, his answers dry and soft-spoken, balanced between ums and wells. Read his books and you might expect to meet a dazzling raconteur, a weathered commando, a dirt-ball genius; sit next to him in a moving car and you start to feel as if you're in the company of a brilliant but subtly disturbed child. He responds to every question with a relentless truthfulness, but in a tone that's pleasant, engaging, eager to please.Today the novelist is headed home for a breather; tomorrow he continues up the coast, his month filled with promotional readings for his latest, perhaps greatest, volume of stories - - a collection of fragmented, gorgeously filigreed, and palindromically arranged globe trots titled The Atlas.Associative, meandering, phantasmic -- and inspired, Vollmann acknowledges, by the palm-of-the-hand stories of Yasunari Kawabata, author of the masterful Snow Country -- The Atlas's 55 foot trails into Phnom Penh and Mogadishu, Bosnia and San Bruno, the North Pole and the center of the earth, blend reportage with poetry, rotting beauty with delicately colored horror, splatter with joy. Miniatures, condensations, single- bristle brush strokes from Vollmann's larger canvas, the stories are all parts of what the author describes as a "piecemeal atlas of the world I think in"; sorties between the familiar thighs of sex and violence, discovery and loss, fiction and that other thing. Which is the ointment and which is the fly?On the dust jacket Vollmann himself slumps in a crummy hotel bed, his shirt off, a blanket taut like an equator beneath his tits. His image has been sliced in two like a stuttered movie frame: legs above, head below. Inside, the stories progress toward a long middle section, itself titled "The Atlas," where flickering fragments of all the other stories melt and churn in the belly of Vollmann's pear-shaped world. There, identities collide and meanings mingle in ways that suggest, as Vollmann writes elsewhere in the book, a head bumping into its own shadow at the top of a too-small tomb. In the book's second half, the stories reverse course and retreat into mystery, the first chapter obliquely echoing the last, the second murmuring a rhyme for the second-to-last, all tail- chasing to the end."I just got back from interviewing some Cambodian gang members down in Long Beach for the big book I'm doing on violence," the novelist says to me as we drive along, "and I thought about taking a gun along. But I realized I'd be interviewing some police officers down there, and I didn't want to leave a pistol in my hotel room. And it turned out to not be such a nice hotel room anyway, so it's just as well. Most of the time it's better not to have a gun, but sometimes ... " he trails off, smiling, then beams, "I have a machine gun in Thailand. I got a real nice one for about 80 bucks.""Where'd you buy it?""Cambodia.""Do you keep a permanent residence in Thailand?""No, but I go back pretty often, and it's real nice to have that stuff over there. Thailand's kind of fascinating. It's surrounded on almost every side by people in the jungles with guns," he says with typical understatement, laughing again.The same sort of laughter -- a bright black laughter that only seems full of life because its friendly, horrid breath withers the advances of death -- echoes through one of The Atlas's more excruciating tales, a story called "That's Nice." In it Vollmann talks turkey with an aggrieved rental-car agent in the Croatian city of Split. The agent wants Vollmann to reimburse him for damages to the car he had been riding in, the car in which Vollmann's high school friend, photographer Francis Tomasic, and another journalist had been murdered -- possibly by snipers, possibly by a land mine -- a few days before; the car, now destroyed, in which Vollmann, hunkered in the back floor-well behind the cooling bodies of his companions, had narrowly escaped extinction.In the story the agent gives Vollmann a photo of the ruined car:That's nice, I said. That's very artistic. Here. I'll show you a couple of nice pictures, too.I got up and went to the other bed and took the envelope of contact prints.This is Mr. B. after I pulled him out of the car, I said. Isn't that nice? He was my friend for nineteen years. And this one here is Mr. A. Here they both are in the front just before I pulled them out.Mr. A. was driving? the rental man asked.That's right. See how the first burst got him right in the head? I'll be happy to make a copy for your collection.When Vollmann -- who ran, or rather, stumbled with the mujahideen freedom fighters in Afghanistan in his 20s, who has camped alone on the mosquito-thickened plains of the Northwest Territories, who has prized prostitutes who never unfurled a condom, and who refused to flinch when a Muslim soldier held a pistol to his chest and considered giving his bulletproof vest a try -- got in my car, I laughed when he started to buckle up. Vollmann laughed too, then he told me about the man in Sarajevo who told him about freedom: "We are more free here than you are in America; we have no seat-belt laws."NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE Freedom is something William Vollmann cherishes -- the freedom to bear arms, reserve judgment, kill enemies, and build a fortress in the clouds -- and he pursues it like a guileless child chasing a poisonous snake just to watch the shimmer of its skin. He has talked freedom with political soldier of fortune James "Bo" Gritz, and he's queried Khun Sa, the opium king of Burma, on similar matters. Of the father of a 15-year- old prostitute Vollmann helped to kidnap out of slavery from a Thai brothel -- a man who had sold his daughter into sexual servitude -- Vollmann observed (in a story for SPIN) that he "did not seem to be a bad person. Hardly anyone ever is."This summer Vollmann will mingle again with the people in the jungles with guns when he resumes his now years-long efforts to get an interview with exiled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. "When is violence justified?" Vollmann wants to ask the near-mythical master of the killing fields; it's the same question he's posed to warlords and gangsters and mercenaries and cops time and again, the question around which his "big book on violence," to be titled Rising Up and Rising Down, will revolve."I've visited all these different war zones and gangs and stuff like that," he explains. "Most of it comes down to self-defense: when is self-defense of authority justified? The police beating Rodney King, for instance, or Abraham Lincoln sending in troops against the South, whatever. Or defense of race -- like when you get skinheads beating up blacks, or blacks beating up the odd white guy who wanders into their neighborhood, or when you have John Brown cold-bloodedly killing white people who were pro-slave -- are all these things justified or not? In one sense I know the book is not going to be successful because it's all about judging people, and I hate to judge people. That's one of the things about my work all the way through. I try and always present somebody as a human being first and then try and think about what the person did separately from the person."I'm trying to get some rough calculus of rules that can be followed for people who are thinking about engaging in violence so that people can decide whether it's going to be justified or not. For instance, if you're going to start a revolution, how much time is going to elapse before deciding whether or not the revolution is going to succeed? Is it going to be possible to declare victory at some point and stop the violence, or is it just going to have to keep going on and on and on?"Some readers, and some editors, have asked a similar question of Vollmann's books: Do they have to keep going on and on and on? Fathers and Crows (one of his Seven Dreams), for example, runs just shy of a thousand pages. Writing it gave Vollmann carpal tunnel syndrome, forcing him to work more in longhand and to dabble in watercolors and printmaking to keep him away from the keyboard. (Any other problems? "Well, if I shoot my .50 caliber, after a couple of hours my wrists hurt, but I think anyone's would. If I'm shooting the .9 or the .45, though, no problem.")"If I had a chance to revise Fathers and Crows," he notes, "I'd tack another hundred pages on." At present, the manuscript for Rising Up and Rising Down is 1,500 pages long. Two of his publishers have already declined.Vollmann likes the freedom to reserve judgment on himself as well. When I asked him about a story in The Atlas called "Under the Grass," a devastatingly beautiful account of the life of emotional terror Vollmann has endured since the day his younger sister, ostensibly under his care, drowned while the author, then nine, sat immersed in a book, he began by saying: "In that story, I, or the protagonist, or 'he,' let's say 'he' because that makes me feel most comfortable ..."In a sense, Vollmann's books aren't autobiographical at all; they're just filled with someone referred to as "he" and someone referred to as "I."They told me to take care because you were littler, but I forgot. Brawny ropes of water captured you. The fishes asked to drink your gurgling breaths. The mud asked to kiss your eyes. The sand asked to fill your mouth. The weeds asked to sprout inside your ears. Outside the night skull, a tunnel of blue light led you to India. Inside the night skull, your blood became brown water. ...Suppose I'd never done what they never said I did, my executioneering I mean, would I still have been brazed to ferocity year by year by the memory of your blue face? My blood-writing has quarried you, but I wish that you were still my sister, dancing above the grass.Later, Vollmann, talking about fiction, tells me, "The Atlas doesn't claim to be true in any way, but it's filled with stories that are true in every sense. No one complains that Melville should have limited himself to the whales he actually saw."Earlier, talking about journalism, he had said to me, "I just figure if I haven't actually been somewhere, or actually seen something going on, I probably don't know anything about it."Somewhere in the middle, Vollmann asks me if my tape recorder is getting this all down. If it isn't, I tell him, I'll just make a few things up. "OK by me," Vollmann smiles. "Say anything you want, as long as you don't get me in trouble."PORTS IN A STORM "You can't always have a girl in every hotel room," Vollmann said to me, it no longer matters when, "so you might as well have a book."I'm pretty sure I know what he means. I haven't seen William T. Vollmann in the arms of any prostitutes. I haven't met any of the women William T. Vollmann sometimes calls his wives -- the wives he might have in Thailand, or Cambodia, or Africa, or Sacramento. So I probably don't know anything about them, except what I've read in his books.In his books "he" may be one of the most profligate men around. "He" loves the company of whores: whores from Pat Pong and Somalia, whores he's bought gold and crack and beer for, whores he's painted and whores he's worshipped and whores he's left behind. ("Grand Street didn't like the last part of that story," Vollmann told me of one piece, "so they cut it out. I don't care; I got paid. I'm a whore.")You don't have to make much of a leap to figure that some of Vollmann 's whore-lust is an acting out of his sister-loss; he makes the leap for you. But can the man who's been touted by critics bright and small as our Swift, our Pynchon, our Rabelais, our Diderot, really teach us something about the human condition by sticking his pen in an inkwell filled with bees? Is Vollmann goosing propriety just to get a rise, or is propriety goosing him?"When I wrote my first book [You Bright and Risen Angels], I didn't know very many women. I was just kind of this inexperienced kid. Prostitutes have been great because I've gotten to know so many women since then, and I've gotten close to many of them. It's pretty interesting reading the so-called great writers, the ones in the canon and so forth, when they're writing about the relationship between the sexes. By and large, they've got to either draw on their marriages or their families for character models. And if you read three or four novels by the same author, you usually have a pretty good idea of how things are going to work between the men and the women. I suppose that's true of my books, too, but I like to think that the women themselves are a lot more varied. Because I can always find a prostitute and learn something new."And what have you learned?"Number one: that being compensated for intimacy is not necessarily wrong, and if it were wrong, then I think that paying psychiatrists to listen to people's problems would be wrong. Number two: that I think a lot of lonely people are actually quite easy to please, and that prostitutes are doing a good thing when they please them. And that life isn't always how it seems. It's easy to think that prostitutes are exploited, and that the guys who go to them are exploiting them. Sometimes that's true, and sometimes they're exploiting each other, and sometimes the guy that goes to them gets nothing for his trouble.""Do I think prostitution should be legalized? I definitely do," Vollmann says, slipping, at my prodding, into poster-boy mode. "Legalized, regulated, health-inspected, and taxed. If it were legalized there would be fewer crimes against women committed, fairer prices paid to the women, and less money taken out by middlemen. And I think it would be easier for the prostitutes and their customers to have self-respect since that business is always going to exist anyway, and it's not hurting anybody. It may offend some people, but I really don't think it's anybody's business to be offended by other peoples' sexual lives."The telephone rings, and Vollmann sets his tumbler of single malt scotch on the glass-topped coffee table in his well-appointed living room -- framed dust jackets from his books on one wall, hundreds of compact discs in racks on another -- and lifts the cordless phone. "Hi, sweetheart," he drawls, giving me a wink. "I'd love to see you tomorrow night. Will you wear that dress I like so much? Oh, good. Will you take it off for me?"HARD CORE "I guess the center of the palindrome might actually be the camera obscura at the Cliff House there in San Francisco," Vollmann says to me the last time we talk about The Atlas. "When he's out there watching the world go round and round upside down, and everything's really strange and beautiful, but ultimately ungraspable. And even if it's going round and round about you, it's not like it gives you any power or makes you any wiser, particularly. You just happen to be there, and then you pass on through, and you start moving farther and farther away from the center of the palindrome."There's a pause on the tape, a long Sacramento silence. Something gurgles: it might be molten lava or the single malt in Vollmann's belly. It might be gravity tugging on the bottom of a pear."But then I just wrote the thing," Vollmann resumes, his smile cracking the silence. "That doesn't mean I'm right."PHONE CALL AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL"How you doing today, Bill?""Well, real good. Ken's up here this morning taking some pictures of me for your article.""What're you wearing, a negligee?""Yep, I've got the pink taffeta on.""How about smearing a little goat cheese around your lips?""That's the least I could do for you, Chuck. How's your friend Robin? She move out of California yet?""Not yet. She's off the streets, though, working for an escort service a little bit, but mainly just eating Fruit Loops and watching a lot of TV.""I've got a friend in New York who does so well with her escort service that she keeps a second apartment in Chicago and flies back and forth. She makes her customers wear two condoms, but she only makes her husband wear one.""That's what true love'll do, Bill.""Yeah, that's what I thought, too."