Red-light fever

I, too, love a district where anything goes, but William Vollmann's novel of San Francisco's Tenderloin goes too far.

By Cary Tennis
Published August 28, 2000 7:22AM (EDT)

I understand the impulse to run away from the suburbs to a place that looks as if people actually live there, to go into a bar where there are no balloons, to walk down a street where nothing bespeaks a shallow niceness but everything is burnished with human use, and the bloodstains on the sidewalks remind us that people bleed and an occasional broken tree reminds us that people sometimes drive too fast and can't stop. I understand the allure of a neighborhood of apartments where old men sit on stoops talking of their days in submarines and street-corner hookers of indeterminate gender construct a novel sexuality out of pure will.

If you had to choose between such a neighborhood and a sterile suburb where Christianity has been edited to fit your screen and bloody history has been preempted by Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," where sleepwalkers mow their lawns and hang their clothes in a breeze redolent of Tide, where lives are lived outside of history in a glass jar filled with Glade, where the highest good seems to be a kind of banal tranquility -- my God, who would not flee that death-in-life that America seems to offer up at every turn? And go where? Anywhere. To a place by a river. To a loft in an industrial area. To a downtrodden section of a great city to live a secret life of painted glamour in bars where longshoremen used to fight with knives.

In William T. Vollmann's latest novel, "The Royal Family," the main character describes his fascination with San Francisco's Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is a 50-plus-block area of downtown San Francisco, a dense place of residential and tourist hotels and cheap apartments, high crime and rampant drug-dealing, and it's been San Francisco's de facto red-light district for more than 50 years (the word "Tenderloin" comes from the choice cut of beef a police officer could afford once transferred into such a graft-rich area):

When Tyler was small, his parents had brought him to some vast city which must have been Los Angeles ... and he recollected walking with them at night through a crowd of happy people gazing into lighted shopwindows of everything -- and it seemed that the lights and happiness would go on forever but suddenly Tyler's family arrived at a dark desolate place where a man glared at them and they were all alone. Later he understood that all light, everywhere, must burn out, but the reason that the Tenderloin fascinated him was that it combined the dark desolation with the shiny rouged and glowing-skirted merchandise.

The duality in that passage seems to promise that Vollmann will explore the aesthetic tension between the dark dangers of the Tenderloin and the powerful, libidinous energy it symbolizes. But any such gritty, life-affirming energy the Tenderloin might possess disappears under an unrelenting onslaught of dark desolation. The action of the novel largely concerns down-and-out detective Henry Tyler's search for the Queen of the Whores and, when he finds her, his relationship with her and the coterie of crack-addicted and abused prostitutes to whom she provides a mystical protection. It takes place mainly in San Francisco's two hot spots for prostitution, the 17th Street and Capp area of the Mission district, and the Tenderloin.

The Tenderloin is both an area and an idea. Longtime housing activist and executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic Randy Shaw notes that the Tenderloin expands and contracts to accommodate behavior that fits its profile and to exclude whatever doesn't. If a murder occurs there, says Shaw, it occurs in "the Tenderloin," but if a condo is sold, it's sold in "lower Nob Hill." He jokingly says that the Tenderloin can never "improve" because once an area "improves" it ceases to be part of the Tenderloin. Its features change regularly, too, as the faces of those who need cheap housing have changed from longshoremen working San Francisco's now-moribund maritime shipping industry to immigrant families needing a place to start out in America.

The Tenderloin's radical permissiveness seems to infect the shape of Vollmann's novel itself with a tendency toward compulsive and formless inclusion. It's as if in defying limits by describing the depravity of crack-addicted whores and the men who use them, Vollmann has also defied the limits of form and elegance in the novel itself.

In the Tenderloin, the fact that anything goes has drawn artists, transsexuals and rebels of all shapes. I share their affection, and seeing the neighborhood lit up in Vollmann's prose was one of the few vivifying pleasures in the book. In the 1970s and early 1980s, both as a resident and as a musician practicing in the dank, tomb-like rooms of the basement Turk Street Studios, across the street from the infamous punk dive the Sound of Music, I found the Tenderloin a richly evocative setting for creative work.

There, I could imagine myself in the bowels of any of the world's great cities, working in obscurity -- downtrodden, outcast and one day to emerge as a great and tortured visionary. In the vacuum of any coherent critical community, in the company of heroin addicts and drunks, it was not hard to imagine oneself as an overlooked genius. No one in the Tenderloin would scold you for drinking a tall Budweiser at 10 a.m.; they'd happily join in if you would buy a few more.

The disregard for moral convention of Tenderloin street people and hustlers attracted me, even though such disregard had led them to lives punctuated by stays in jails and on the streets. Broken-down heroin addicts, alcoholics and street prostitutes seemed to embody my own ineluctable alienation from the shiny, happy society that was my birthright. But since absolute rebellion brought with it the threat of absolute exclusion -- I, after all, was a product of the middle class and had the privileges of belonging, should I choose to exercise them -- I kept a studio apartment at Sutter and Leavenworth, just one block over the northern border of the Tenderloin. And I never got anywhere near as close to its denizens as Vollmann, who has conducted legendarily exhaustive "field research" in the area.

The interesting thing about public opinion of the Tenderloin is the way it resembles the view of an addict who is aware of a problem but can see no real solution. For 50 years newspapers have regularly trumpeted one "renewal" of the Tenderloin after another. But societies, like addicts, need to encounter some radical truth in order to change. For addicts it can be the truth of their own behavior or some kind of tragic vision, but it must be an unadorned and humbling recognition that sears the core of the being. If government and the media were to undergo, by analogy, such a process of recovery from illusion, it would mean including in public policy and media reports the recognition of the human will to failure, of the lust for death, of the hunger for oblivion that haunts our daylight hours, of the violent impulses that lie beneath the surface in even the most placid and competent of us. It would mean that we stop being hypocritical about who the men are who drive around dark urban streets getting blow jobs from anonymous hookers.

Instead, of course, we partition a part of the city for our vices and then every so often bemoan its presence, as if waking up startled to find it there, as it were, in our own bed. Year after year we proclaim ourselves optimistic, still fighting, still hanging in there, inches away from victory! We begin to sound remarkably like chronic drug relapsers. Meanwhile, we manage to skirt the radical truth of our collective nature as humans, that we're violent sons of bitches who steal, lie and abuse each other and hunger for an occasional few minutes of oblivion, and if that means breaking the law to get some dope and a blow job, that's what we're gonna do.

So this obsession with the Tenderloin I understand. But I think it acts as a metaphor for the difficulty of the book. I'm not a literary critic and there's much about the book's apparent allegorical structure and biblical allusiveness that goes over my head. Moreover, the nature of Vollmann's mind is a mystery about which we can only surmise. Nevertheless, I see parallels between the madness symbolized by the Tenderloin in "The Royal Family" and a kind of madness operating in the book itself.

In the back of the book, in the acknowledgements, Vollmann thanks his editor for not insisting that he cut the novel by a third. One wishes Vollmann had relented instead, for the result is a book that taxes the sensibilities with details about the sights, smells and diseases of crack-addicted and abused whores, the mental tricks a pederast plays on himself, a Ku Klux Klan member who creates a Las Vegas bordello staffed by kidnapped retarded slave girls and a main character whose infatuation with his brother's wife drives her to suicide.

While in the abstract I prefer Vollmann's wholehearted embrace of all that is bloody, suppurating, jaundiced, piss-stinking, bloated, infected, impacted, pus-filled, hateful and abused in the Tenderloin to the boosterish, puritanical, cleanup-minded views of the media and the public, I think somewhere along the way the aesthetic tension between the darkness of the Tenderloin and its redeeming light breaks apart. We seem to spiral into a moral wasteland of appetite without discernment and misfortune without redemption.

Vollmann doesn't moralize or flinch from the ugliness. He shows us the festering wounds and the stinking orifices; he shows us the beatings and blood and hopelessness. In principle, I like that. It's preferable to the vague moralizing of our city fathers. But even I could only follow him so far before I began to feel beaten, worn down and abused myself. Am I simply another shocked burgher unable to see into the truth behind the ugliness? Am I like one of those people who, when confronted with a breakthrough in art, miss the revolutionary impulse and see only vulgarity?

Maybe. But I do believe that high literary art can bring the most depraved aspects of our nature to us in a form that even the most delicate of us can apprehend. I believe that the difference between beauty and sensationalism is that in a work of beauty the horrible is transformed and frozen in its essential nature so that we can approach it in a posture of serene contemplation. And in a work experienced serially, such as a piece of music or a novel, change is an aesthetic element. Characters are not tourists driven to consume one sensational thrill after another without being changed; instead they are powerful reagents who metabolize and transform the ugly into the beautiful by ordering it, comprehending it, placing it in the wheel of life.

This may sound like an argument for the kind of pedestrian moral redemption in fiction that, when enforced by large institutions of education and public taste, not to mention governments, impedes artistic innovation. But it's meant to be a plea for the lifesaving formal rigor of great fiction; great fiction, even when it chooses the horrible as its subject matter, brings to it an ordering force of mind, and follows an arc of completion through time.

In "The Royal Family", this kind of transformation does not appear to happen. Tyler plods on. Rather than being changed by his experiences, he seems only to be ground down. The trajectory of the novel seems entropic. The choice of the Tenderloin for a setting hints at an explanation: Eliminating social limits allows the novelist to travel too far outside literate culture, to a place where human behavior no longer has meaning because it occurs outside of what we recognize as civilization.

I understand the impulse to hole up in a room in the Tenderloin or the Mission; I understand the need to fight those who would dumb down our passionate artistic constructions. But what seems to happen in this book is the same thing that happens to residents of a place like the Tenderloin: After a while it wears you down. The ugliness and cruelty accrue in the psyche and impair your ability to apprehend beauty. As a defense against the ugliness you attenuate your moral sensitivity, blunt your hearing, blur your eyesight, dull your alertness to fine distinctions, until only the loudest noises and the most extreme sensations register. In reading this novel, after suffering repeated assaults to the senses in the form of stinking whores' cunts and a creepily sympathetic rendering of a pederast's first seduction, among many others, we're a little wounded and abused ourselves; we whimper through the rest of the brutal narrative like beaten children, hoping for a little kindness and light and finding none; eventually we shut down and become, rather than more human, less so. And that seems to be the opposite of what novels are supposed to do.

Cary Tennis

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