Monday, February 15, 2010

Books: The Rainbow Stories, by William T. Vollman

I've written about Vollman's Whores For Gloria here, where I commended his limpid realist prose, but found his material so dark that I wondered whether I'd ever read him again. It took nearly a year, but I did find myself back for more, reading this fat volume of short stories organized by color, and more certain than ever that Vollman is a sick man with a great talent.

For the most part, these are also stories set in San Francisco's grittier cross-sections; Vollman's cast of characters are skinheads, winos, hookers, and junkies, and while there are exceptions to this rule, The Blue Wallet and The Green Dress, in particular, these stories offer an equally disturbing picture. The Green Dress, for example, is a love story about a man and the green dress worn by a woman who lives in his apartment building. He has no interest in the woman, but breaks into her house one day to steal the dress, which he takes home, makes love to, and brings out to the park on dates.

Vollman is clearly fascinated by the mentally-unsound, and his most disturbing and strangely, most beautiful story in the book, The Blue Yonder, invites us to fall in love with a group of homeless winos that camp out in Golden Gate Park, while simultaneously tracking the obsessive-compulsive and split personality murderer who is systematically killing them because they are unclean—by knocking them out and packing their mouths full of Drano crystals, then beheading them after their jaws have dissolved. While this sounds incredibly sick (who in their right minds would want to read about that?!), Vollman is such an honest guide, never an exploitative sensationalist, that our empathy overpowers our disgust. Though there is nothing evangelical about his writing—the man is a tender documentarian, but never suggests that anything should or can be otherwise—Vollman is a kind of authorial Christ, openly embracing society's dregs.

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