William T. Vollmann’s Poor People

Poor PeopleWilliam T. Vollmann looks every bit the misfit, so much so that it hardly comes as a surprise to learn he was once investigated by the FBI in connection with the Unabomber murders. Add to that the fact that he doesn’t use a cell phone, or the internet, or own a car or personal bank account, and one starts to sympathize with the misguided FBI agents who prosecuted the investigation. He lives and works in Sacramento, California, but his studio – where he writes, paints and occasionally sculpts – is a repurposed Mexican restaurant, complete with separate men’s and women’s bathrooms. He is most famous for his intrepid reporting from war zones across the globe, and for Rising Up And Rising Down, the 3,500 page investigation into the causes, consequences and ethics of violence that resulted. The original, seven-volume edition, which is still the only unabridged printing available, is fetching close to $1000 on sites like Amazon and eBay. He is extremely well travelled, and it is those travels, to some of the poorest countries on earth, that provided the background for Poor People, which collects his thoughts and experiences interviewing impoverished men and women in places like Russia, Columbia, Thailand, Mexico, Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Philippines.

The subject of extreme poverty is by its nature discomforting. Few among us can ever hope to be emancipated from the constraints of finances entirely, but it’s unlikely that anyone reading this now knows what it means to lack for basic shelter or forego food for an entire day. Most of the people Vollmann interviewed for this book scrape together a living from begging or what odd (typically dangerous and dirty) jobs they can find. Converting their currency to American dollars, they live off a dollar a day, often less. Many are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Several are reduced to stealing or prostitution (Vollman, it should be noted, has a special affinity for prostitutes, and has spent a great deal of time in their company).  Some of them are disabled, or mutilated, or maimed – some merely pretend to be. All of them have in common a daily battle for survival, but this reality doesn’t necessarily render them hopeless or sad or cynical, or at least not all of the time.

I inevitably thought of my own brief interactions with the homeless. They are unavoidable in many areas of Montreal, as much a part of the scenery as the storefronts and street signs, and yet most people raised in the city pass them with practiced indifference. Some are drunks, bottles in hand, oblivious to the world. Others – a disheartening number – are mentally ill. I would say I’m sympathetic and yet that sympathy rarely translates into more than the donation of a few coins, and even that usually feels like it’s intended more to assuage my guilt than offer relief. Sometimes, if I’m having a bad day or feel burdened by work, I may even feel a kind of irrational anger towards them, an anger that is quickly replaced by shame, but the net result is always the same, always that I would rather not have to think about them.

Vollmann, to his credit, sought them out. He isn’t naive enough to think a few short hours with a person could suffice to understand them, and he isn’t attempting anything like a systematic study of poverty. He asks simple questions (“Why are you poor?”) and gets simple answers. Appended to the back of the book are a collection of black-and-white photographs taken by Vollmann of the people he spoke to, and they are as heartbreaking as anything in the interviews – more so, in fact, since the force of the interviews is diluted somewhat by the sheer number of them. We meet many people, some more memorable than others, but none, one senses, as memorably evoked as they are remembered, and this is somewhat to the book’s disadvantage, because if it isn’t an anthropological study and declines to be a character study, what is it?

This crisis of identity robs Poor People of much of its potential force, but Vollmann’s prose, at once spartan and lively, and his relentless curiosity hold our interest.