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Review "Whores for Gloria" by William Vollman
Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.     

The immediate temptation is to categorize this powerful novel as the latest entry in the growing school of literary cruelty that includes Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Dennis Cooper's Frisk, and Paul Russell's Boys of Life. It abounds with scenes of assault and violent sexuality. But Vollmann's novel quickly separates from the cool, fascinated voyeuristic slumming of those other writers because of its compassion for the denizens of the hell he explores, the world of whores, pimps, derelicts in San Francisco's tenderloin district.

     Whether or not he inhabited that world, Vollmann writes with authority, in a tone that is just right to convey a world in which violence, pain, outrage are commonplace:

     "At the corner of Turk and Jones the pushers were pushing and Jimmy went and leaned up against a building with them and watched the whores go by and a pusher said you want a bag? and Jimmy said no thanks ... and another pusher came up to him and said what you doin' here and Jimmy said what's happening pal and the pusher said coldly pal's not my name and Jimmy said well I'm Jimmy pleased to meet you Charlie and he stretched out his hand ... and the pusher took a quart of beer out of a paper sack and smashed it down on the sidewalk so that it exploded and sprayed beer and broken glass all over the sidewalk...." [115]

     This intimate knowledgeability of the world he describes allows Vollmann a moving empathy: "An old woman stood on the sidewalk staring at him.... In a moment she would start screaming.... Clark? she said very weakly.... You came back? Jimmy understood. His arm was around her.--Yeah, it's me, he said.... And you're looking good and looking happy...." [117] He grants lost souls their dignity: "Jimmy believed that whores were like other actresses and deserved to have the glamor of their stage names respected." [83]

     Indeed, the novel might be described as a love story set in a hell. A Don Quixote in the Tenderloin, Jimmy journeys through the squalor of his territory in search of his own Dulcinea, a prostitute named Gloria: "... doing what I am about to do I do for Gloria out of love for Gloria out of belief in Gloria ... as she wanted to be for all these lonely men whose greed of lust was nothing but an aching prayer for beauty...." [42, 101]

     Whether or not she has ever existed--and Vollmann sustains this element of suspense--Jimmy is trying to re-create her out of the tattered memories of street prostitutes--black, white, "real" or "transformers." He pays for pieces of their clothing, a hank of hair--and for their sad memories, which he then purifies into the memories of a younger Gloria, locating her within his own youthful memories: "... sugar cookies glittered like stars and Gloria got a chocolate eclair and when she was done Jimmy kissed the frosting off her lips." [91]

     Seemingly a series of loosely connected vignettes--and for all its disregard of conventional punctuation--Vollmann's is an expertly constructed novel. The book opens from the point of view of a female cop and her male partner scouring the streets for arrests, focusing on a man speaking into a telephone to someone named Gloria, while "old people hobbled home to their hotels to double-lock their half-rotten doors ... and the whores came out and sat on the hoods of old station wagons." [2] The reader enters as an outsider, and then Vollmann quickly pulls him into the point of view of Jimmy, the man on the telephone, and into the violent events of his story.

     Vollmann startles with his use of lyricism to heighten by contrast the terror of an experience: When one of the whores realizes she is in the car of a serial killer, she recognizes the site of his atrocities: "the poppies and the buttercups and snapdragons sparkled like night-cities in the hills above the freeway.... and the trunks of eucalyptus trees shimmered like skeletons ... and the man stared at her with inhuman eyes ... and tail-lights of the cars ahead of her were shining very red and bright like her screams...." [60]

     Images of war, references to the Holocaust, to Vietnam, the slaughter of children elevate Vollmann's territory into metaphor: "... the world seemed filled with sickness like liquid, churning him around in its acid waves, stinking in his nose and mouth, and he had to lie down on the sidewalk to stop it...." [120]

     This is a haunting, oddly beautiful novel.

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