Making a bid for the bleakest book of the year, Vollmann (Butterfly Stories, 1993, etc.) fashions a world-wide web of despair in a palindrome of 53 stories, each having to do with sorrow or loss, and often involving the hopeless lives of whores from Cambodia to Canada. From the jungle to the tundra, from the smog of L.A. to the fog of Hong Kong, from bullfights in Mexico City to firefights in Sarajevo, these stories, often drawing on Vollmann's own travels and life, mingle autobiography and invention, creating a provocative, sometimes dizzying, hybrid. Among the most resonant pieces are the unsparing description of childhood loss of a sister, and a tale set in Bosnia, involving an incident when a friend was shot dead in a car in which the author was also riding. Loves lost also figure prominently: the tender prostitute Vollmann met during his first trip to Phnom Penh; a lame Ojibway in Winnepeg, whose husband took him on a drunk; his first girlfriend, now married with children and locked in a battle with breast cancer. Diverse adventures, which also have a way of distancing the writer from his world, mingle with the sexual ones. He pays to go on a walrus hunt with an old Inuit and his grandsons and is mostly ignored, cuts short a night of ringside kickboxing in Bangkok when the sport's brutality overwhelms him, and is tolerated by urban aborigines in Sydney only as long as the beer he's bought holds out. Despite their distanced quality, these fantasies and terrifying visions of underclass reality at every latitude and longitude are poetically, damningly precise. As in other recent work from Vollmann, however, repetitive images seem to reiterate rather than advance the theme, turning terrific writing into tedium. One weeps somewhat reflexively for the lost souls mirrored in these fragments; more heartfelt, unfortunately, is a horror at the squandering of such a prodigious prose talent.