National Book Award–winning novelist and journalist Vollmann (Europe Central, 2005, etc.) asks street people why they think they’re poor. Most have no answer.
The author doesn’t either, though he certainly has temerity. On mean streets and blasted spots in New York, California, Japan, China, Thailand, Afghanistan, Russia, Kenya, the Philippines and elsewhere, Vollmann sought out the most wanting among us, heard their stories, asked his questions. He has no solutions to global poverty. He knows that only the well-to-do and educated will read his book; the best he can offer is a plea for a “culture of communalism.” He is fully aware of the narrative’s central irony: a rich, educated guy, jetting around the world visiting prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless and the hopeless. Some were forthcoming; he was welcomed into a Thai home made of planks. Others were reticent, distrustful, even fearful: In Kazakhstan, no one would talk to him about the oil company that had ravaged the local environment; nor could he find anyone in Japan to arrange an interview with a “snakehead” who smuggled illegal Chinese immigrants, many of whom became prostitutes. Vollmann tackles head-on the problem of hope, seeing it in gambling, drug-taking and love. (Oddly, he alludes to religion only briefly, mostly in sections about the Taliban.) The most powerful chapter concerns the author’s experiences with the homeless who camp in the parking lot adjacent to his house in Sacramento. Vollmann pinballs among emotions ranging from compassion to anger, frustration, rage and disgust when he has to scrub their feces from his building’s outer wall. He tries to maintain a human connection with them, partly because he is “kind by nature” (he hopes), but also because their good will may minimize the damage they do to his property.
Snapshots of people no one wants to think about, written with great candor by someone unafraid to reveal his own fears and prejudices.