Embarrassment of riches

In his new book, misery junkie William Vollmann asks people around the globe, Why are you poor?

Published April 16, 2007 11:25AM (EDT)

St. Catherine of Sienna, the 14-century Italian mystic and ascetic, is reputed to have mortified herself by drinking the pus of one of the hospital patients she cared for as a lay member of the Dominican Order. She also practiced self-flagellation and starved herself to death. It's easy to be reminded of Catherine while reading William Vollmann's "Poor People," an agonized meditation on the question "Why are some people poor and what should the rest of us do about it?" Vollmann isn't discernibly religious, and he seems to honestly believe that his book is not as "self-lacerating" or "self-loathing" as James Agee's classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," an earlier (1941) foray into similar territory. Yet there has always been something in Vollmann that revels in abasement and grueling self-scrutiny, and here he has found the ideal occasion for it.

Vollmann, who won the National Book Award last year for his novel "Europe Central," is a writer of extraordinary talent and no discipline, a combination that leaves many of his books falling, frustratingly, just short of the masterpiece of which he seems to be capable. (While having something significant to say is essential to great writing, knowing what to leave out is, alas, just as indispensable.) You can always find something brilliant in his books, fiction or nonfiction, but the ratio of brilliance to flotsam can be a bitch. "Poor People," although a little rambling, offers a more favorable balance than most, as if even Vollmann couldn't bring himself to linger overlong on this harrowing subject.

The book is a fragmented rumination on the answers Vollmann got when he asked a few dozen people from all over the globe, "Why are you poor?" (There's also a somewhat extraneous chapter on "snakeheads," Japanese gangsters who traffic in illegal immigrants, that originated as one of the pieces of danger journalism Vollmann writes for national men's magazines.) This isn't an easy question to answer even when you have the luxury to think about such matters, and as the author points out, "communication being, like other skills, a skill of the rich, the poor people in this book sometimes failed to tell me what I longed to know. Dates did not add up, and their memories, like mine, were inconsistent -- one reason why this book cannot be simply a collection of oral histories."

Even the rich (meaning people like you and me, with the luxury of time to consider such issues) when asked about the brutal poverty in which (according to the U.N.) one-quarter of the world's people exist, tend to settle on one formulaic response or another. Whether we blame the poor themselves, blame capitalism, blame fate or find some other appropriate villain, we can deliver up our answer whenever it's needed and avoid having to spend any more time meditating on the topic. The great strength of "Poor People" lies in Vollmann's willingness to sit with his subject, to interrogate himself, and then to interrogate himself again, until he finally reveals what appears to be an infinite maze of pain. His writerly gifts allow him make that misery felt. "Poor People" isn't a work of masterly reporting, like David K. Shipler's "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," but then again you'll never find a description of "snow like congealed saliva" in that sort of book.

Complicating Vollmann's mission is his ferocious desire not to come off as a patronizing, middle-class do-gooder, the sort of person no two-fisted, close-to-the-bone fellow with an extensive gun collection and a thing for Asian bar girls would want to be associated with. This presents difficulties, because when it comes to poverty, do-gooders have proven themselves to be remarkably resourceful over the years, and it's hard to find a position -- political, personal or moral -- that they haven't at some point occupied and contaminated with their awful uncoolness. Presumably that's why, in the 310 pages of "Poor People," we never see an aid worker or a charity provider, even though some of these people (especially the religious ones) live among the people Vollmann writes about.

Vollmann holds special contempt for the Marxist notion of "false consciousness," the theory that the oppressed proletariat have been deceived into not recognizing their own best interests. "Because I wish to respect poor people's perceptions and experiences," he explains, "I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, to gild their every choice with my benevolent approval." Accordingly, the keystone figure in "Poor People" is Sunee, a Thai cleaning woman with a chronic drinking problem and a 10-year-old daughter she is raising with the help of her long-suffering mother. She gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his refusal to judge his subjects: "As for Sunee's drunkenness, wasn't that likewise both adaptive and maladaptive? Who could grudge it to her? What else did she have to look forward to?"

But before Vollmann can even get into the reasons why people -- as individuals and as classes -- are poor, he must first figure out who is poor, and this turns out to be trickier than you'd think. He has carefully compiled a chart showing the incomes of every person he interviewed and their U.S. dollar equivalent, but real poverty is more slippery and subjective. Although everyone can agree that people without enough to eat, or clothes to wear, or a roof over their heads are poor, Sunee -- to name only one example from Vollmann's book -- has all of those things, if not of very high quality. U.S. citizens without healthcare insurance or meaningful educational and employment opportunities might look poor to their fellow Americans, but to Sunee, they'd seem relatively rich. Hmong subsistence farmers who were average 500 years ago, are impoverished today. Some of the people Vollmann meets strike him as poor, but insist that they aren't and claim to be happy, and some of those people he's more inclined to believe than others.

"For me," Vollmann concludes, "poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things that I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable ... I can best conceive of poverty as a series of perceptual categories." Those categories include: invisibility, deformity, unwantedness, dependence, "accident-prone-ness," pain, numbness, estrangement, as comprehensive an index of the emotional and physical debilitations poor people suffer as I have ever seen. Vollmann meets the newly homeless citizens of a Chinese boomtown whose houses have been bulldozed for a new road, Kazakh villagers being slowly poisoned by a carelessly run oil refinery they can't afford to get rid of even if that were possible, former Japanese salarymen living in a "blue-tarped box house" under a bridge, and an 81-year-old Russian woman who supports four younger family members with the money she earns begging in front of a church.

That woman, Oksana, a "hardy old babushka," takes pride in a long life of useful labor, of which begging is only the lamentably necessary last vocation; Vollmann admires her and wants her to like him. Her rival on the church steps, Natalia, is younger yet more miserable: epileptic, confused and bereft of three children she seems to have somehow misplaced along the way; on account of this last failing, she is one of the few poor people of whom Vollmann seems to disapprove, and he suspects her of disliking him for it. Although Oksana's burden is heavier, she impresses him as less poor than Natalia.

In a similar vein, Vollmann compares two toilets: one at the end of the hall in a New York city apartment building inhabited by a streetwalker named Dinah -- filthy; the other, little more than a hole in the ground shared by yet another prostitute, Rose, with all of her neighbors in a Nairobi slum -- clean. In Nairobi, everyone took turns washing out the toilet. Vollmann doesn't blame Dinah for not taking "personal responsibility" for the squalor of her toilet; where she lives, getting caught cleaning up after other people is setting yourself up as a sucker and inviting abuse. Yet the clean toilet in Nairobi shows how a certain type of "riches" (that is, reduction in wretchedness) can't be quantified or individually owned. "If one group of people whom the market defines as poorer than others can actually live a richer life," Vollmann writes, "then poverty itself may be more malleable, hence less to be feared, than other nightmares."

Speaking of streetwalkers, Vollmann's personal feelings about poverty are further complicated by his long-standing and (in earlier books) exhaustively documented penchant for purchased sex, as well as his fascination with the most abject suppliers of that commodity. Prostitution is not always the profession of poor people, but poor people are the ones most likely to be forced into it and to suffer the worst effects of the stigma attached to it. Whether the objects of his obsession are giggling Thai bar girls with their ingratiating ways or the alcoholic whores of San Francisco's Tenderloin with their scabby legs and urine-soaked miniskirts, Vollmann finds them enthralling. A friend of mine chalks this up to a rescue complex, but I suspect that there's more to it -- perhaps the maddening juxtaposition of complete sexual availability and complete emotional unavailability?

At any rate, if these women were not so desperate -- that is, not so poor -- they would not be throwing their arms around him on New York streets or sidling up to him in Bangkok bars. Damsels who are not in distress do not need to be rescued. For all that Vollmann castigates himself for being rich compared to the poor people he interviews, enumerating all the small and large hypocrisies he commits in doling out charity or compassion, this is one permutation he refrains from investigating. But then sex tends to muddle the clearest of heads, and he also makes quite a show of refusing to "come out against" the gender apartheid of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan because some charismatic old tribal patriarch once explained to him that Muslim men show how much they "cherish" and "respect" their women by keeping them locked up safe at home. Vollmann also never quite manages to ask himself if the Afghan women (to whom he cannot speak) would require this respect and cherishing from the men of their culture if the men of their culture did not also feel perfectly entitled to rape and abuse any woman without it.

Where Vollmann does feel most implicated is at home, in the restaurant-turned-residence he owns in Sacramento, Calif. He allows a rotating population of homeless people to camp in the adjoining parking lot, even though they defecate against his wall, light campfires too close to the building and occasionally try to get inside his family's home. He insists on shaking their filthy hands, and making his little daughter shake them, too, even if they have to immediately go inside to wash up afterward. You have to admire Vollmann's commitment to honoring what he calls his "positive fetish about equality" and his "skepticism about the traditional divide between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor." Few of us would go so far in the pursuit of our professed ideals.

But then Vollmann has this strange, starry-eyed awe of the completely destitute and terminally fucked-up -- something of the adolescent's conviction that misery lies closest to the absolute truth of life. He feels "flattered and privileged" when prisoners and prostitutes send him fan mail after reading one of his books, "because I am rich and I want poor people to like me." He hopes that sometimes they do, but how can he really be sure, given the gulf that separates him from them, the material comfort that they lack and that he, for all his ambivalence, is not willing to give up? It's hard not to wonder if some of these people don't suspect him of wanting their friendship because of their poverty, rather than in spite of it.

That's why Vollmann reminds me of St. Catherine, slurping up vile secretions and tormenting her body with whips and fasting. To the modern mind, steeped in psychological theory, her self-abasement is extravagantly misguided, speaking of some deep shame that has nothing to do with truly serving God or the unfortunate, and besides, isn't there something showboaty about all that groveling, whatever her protestations of utter humility? Perhaps so -- well, almost certainly so; no doubt Catherine's motives were no purer than those of all the middle-class do-gooders who pass unmentioned in "Poor People" and no purer than Vollmann's own knotty attitude toward the poor. But pure or not, Catherine would not have been able to perform her bizarre act of self-mortification in the hospital if she had not been in the hospital to begin with, tending to the sick in some way, large or small. And how many of us can say the same?

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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