A sprawling urban epic of obsession, by one of our most ambitious (and idiosyncratic) contemporary writers.
Vollmann, in his Seven Dreams series of historical novels about the destruction of native America (The Rifles, 1994, etc.) and in his several works of fiction and nonfiction dealing with the lives of prostitutes in the modern world (The Atlas, 1996, stories; Butterfly Stories, 1993, etc.) has repeatedly demonstrated a prodigious imagination, and the ability to create memorable, if odd or obsessive, characters. But much of his work has also seemed repetitive, burdened with too many detours and authorial asides. This time out, Vollmann has brought these tendencies under control, and the result is a tale that possesses great cumulative power. The plot is relatively simple: Henry Tyler, a down-at-the-heels p.i. in San Francisco, is drawn into the search for a mythic "Queen of the Prostitutes," rumored to hold nocturnal court in the city's seedier precincts. He is still grieving for his lost love, Irene, who committed suicide. Complicating his mourning is the fact that Irene was married to John, his ferociously self-controlled brother. Henry eventually finds the self-styled Queen, but his discovery does little to relieve him of the burden of the past. John fares slightly better; there seems, at the end, at least the slender possibility that he's learned something from his disastrous marriage. The brothers are nicely complex and convincingly odd figures. But the story generates most of its considerable power from the voices of the many prostitutes Henry comes across in his quest. Their tales of addiction and abandonment, of abuse and of survival, are what makes The Royal Family memorable. Vollmann weaves their voices together with the voices of the Tenderloin's other inhabitants—drunks, anonymous johns, wanderers, hustlers—creating a haunting chorus of the lost. He also offers a precise depiction of place, capturing the darker corners of San Francisco with gritty exactitude.
Not for the squeamish, certainly. Nonetheless, an intensely readable, often moving, and frequently shocking atlas of modern degradation and despair.