Tuesday, August 5, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Whores for Gloria": Book Review

Appearing in 1991, this short novel conveys some of the stories Vollmann gathered during his time among the San Francisco Tenderloin, pre-gentrification, around Jones St. While a familiar topic for this author, and one which his readers will have learned much about given his many stories set in this milieu, this is his first attempt to make a longer work out of episodes. He alludes in the preface that these are true, as told to him by prostitutes, within the fictional framework, typical of Vollmann's blending in much of his books, between fiction and fact.

The grittiness is there. You see via Jimmy, a Vietnam vet on disability living in a claptrap hotel, the lesions and bruises on those with whom he mingles, and while he's out for sex, he's also in search of the titular Gloria. Almost like a sister to him as they grew up, he longs for her and whether he makes up these stories for an imaginary character or a real woman he's loved and lost, this impels him to keep paying for sex and for stories from those around him.

This reminded me of Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, and like that novel, this method Vollmann favors does risk familiarity and sentimentality among the proverbial subjects with hearts of gold. They are tarnished and tawdry here, but Vollmann makes the effort and forces us to take the time to hear their tales from past and present, and we see them as fellow human beings. This intention, the ethical motive underlying his career before and especially since this early novel, keeps him readable even when the material, as here for me, is not what I'd gravitate towards, compared to his historical and political themes in his later books (which I've been slowly reviewing, as this on Amazon 6-1-14).

"The light was very red and warm; the girls were beautiful, and everything was beautiful until later when the girls got anxious and started demanding their tips." That sums up the mood. He and his pal Code Six, also a vet, watch coverage of the past war, with the sound off to block flashbacks for his friend. "The long lean bombs went swimming slowly downward like fish, until they came to the towns and became orange flowers." Not much happens. Jimmy is going downhill, the city draws him down, and everyone's on the make--as the opening vignette with Laredo, who's undercover, introduces efficiently.

His downcast mood permeates this. "He knew life was going to get worse. Maybe stories weren't enough, he thought. But no, they have to be. Stories and hair." He collects both, the latter to make a sort of snipped tribute to the elusive Gloria. This all lacks resolution, and stops suddenly, as if to jar the reader out of a stupor shared by Jimmy and those who surround him. It's a low-key narration, but Vollmann captures the feel of the down and out with his typical mix of detachment and compassion.

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