Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Books: Whores for Gloria, by William Vollman

This book puts this book to shame: as literature, as a portrait of the streets, and as a depressive. After I finished reading it, I was so despondent that I wanted to jump out the window. Here is a truly desperate, gritty, honest depiction of the lives of whores, pimps, addicts, and street-walking transvestites. Even without the appendix (which contains interviews Vollman conducted with real prostitutes) it's clear that he did actual in-depth (from the looks of his author photo, perhaps too in-depth) research in San Francisco's tenderloin, because his novel is direct and agonizingly honest about prices charged for services rendered, slang terms for same, diseases, condoms, wigs, sores, tracks, stilettos, cops, liquor, alleys, bars, abandoned cars, payphones, by-the-hour and by-the-week hotels, chicks with dicks, lubricants, panties, ponytails, murders, rape, molestation, fear, loss, anxiety, desire, emptiness, loneliness, frustration, insanity, brutality, friendship, convenience, abuse, and, yes, love (as defined by a muddy cocktail of the above).

Jimmy, a Vietnam vet who lives in a by-the-week hotel, subsists on disability checks, which he spends on alcohol and whores. He is looking, desperately, for Gloria. Because he is an unreliable narrator extraordinaire, we aren't ever certain if Gloria exists, and, if she does, what her relationship is or was with Jimmy. At times he calls he calls her his wife, at times she is a childhood friend, but he hasn't any genuine memories of their time together; instead, he is slowly building an illusory projection, by copulating with whores, buying their underwear, their hair, and then calling it Gloria's. He pays them to tell him "happy memories" from their childhood (which they do while he masturbates), which he then re-frames as his own memories of innocent (non-sexual) things he did as a child with Gloria (like going to the movies, or taking long car rides, chewing gum). Many of the whores either can't think of any happy memories to begin with, and instead relate horror stories of rape or other abuse, or they do have seemingly happy memories, which are actually tainted by not-so-happy realizations (the girl who talks bright-eyed about going to the movies alone when she was seven, for example, remembers that she was molested at the theater by an old man).

This is my first dip into Vollman, and I honestly don't know if I'm ready to go back for more. He writes well; the sentences have a simple, transparent elegance that allow you to read through rather blithely (rather than harassing or shocking you), so that you don't feel the terribly intense affect upon the belly of your soul until it's far too late, and you want to jump out the window.

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