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Review: William Vollmann returns to the Tenderloin with another uncut gem

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(Viking)

“The Lucky Star” is a seedy, overlong and glorious ode to community

Everything about William T. Vollmann is writ large. Over the course of an intensely prolific career, he has written lots of genuine literary doorstoppers — enough , in fact, to hold open (or closed) all the doors in any moderately sized home in his native state of California. In other words, if you want to pay Vollmann’s work the attention it deserves, you’re going to need a lot of bookshelves and a lot of spare time.

Both Vollmann’s fiction and nonfiction range across vast territories. Having written more than two dozen (mostly very long) books, he is five large volumes into a seven-novel series about the colonization of North America, and his journalism includes “Imperial” (2009), a 1,300-plus-page examination of the water-challenged, immigrant-energized Imperial Valley.

His thematic and technical range may be as wide as his interests, swinging from the fabulist to the naturalistic and back again. His first novel (and my least favorite),“You Bright and Risen Angels,” is the Pynchon-esque secret history of a war between insects and electricity; his most successful, the 2005 National Book Award winner “Europe Central,” explores the cultural clash of Germany and Russia during WWII and the life and music of Shostakovich.

A typical Vollmann book (if there is one) is packed with quotations and footnoted sources, punctuated by long riffs of dreaming and mythologizing. Yet in everything he writes, he is concerned with the ways people strive to be better than the world that contains them. For all their sometimes wearying breadth and depth, his books almost always focus on small, inconsequential lives — the sort of lives that most of us live.

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At times, this tawdry tableau rises like a bright balloon out of the sticky world into a better, more ethereal place.

Vollmann’s latest novel, “The Lucky Star,” is set among the unglamorous bars and motel rooms of San Francisco’s Tenderloin — a neighborhood the author has explored before — and while it possesses the scope of his past novels (including 25 dense pages of “Notes on Sources”), it also feels driven by an urgent contempt toward current politics. His narrator often refers to an “uncouth nationalist” who recently won an election, but Vollmann’s aim is broader — to build a sense of fictional community that welcomes anybody who seeks love and fellowship with others.

“The Lucky Star’s” cast of characters resembles an LGBTQ version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh, or John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat.” First and foremost there is a mysterious woman often referred to simply as “the lesbian” (though she prefers the self-created name of Neva), who has been taught mystic skills by sadistic old women on a mysterious island and now possesses the power to enchant and seduce everybody she meets. “I love everyone,” she often claims — and unlike many of the other characters (most of whom love to love and be loved by Neva) she doesn’t take money for sex; she seems driven only by a desire to please.

Then there’s Frank, sometimes referred to as the “transwoman,” who changes her name to Judy in honor of Judy Garland. (Many chapters are adorned with Judy quotes, including one that provides the book’s title: “I’ve always said that I was born under a Lucky Star, somewhere Over the Rainbow.”) Judy wants to reshape herself on the outside until she matches the person she imagines herself to be on the inside. (She especially admires Garland’s “brilliant dishonesty.”) And while many characters reduce each other to stereotypes — “straight man,” “the Mexicana,” “the other woman,” the “dominatrix” — Judy wants to find her true, unstereotypical self through love. As the narrator (a lonely man who also succumbs to Neva’s charms) remarks, “as long as we felt loved, what mattered why or how?”

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William T. Vollmann, author of “The Lucky Star.”
(William T. Vollmann)

Like many Vollmann novels, “The Lucky Star” is too long. But at the same time, it develops a powerful sense of human life and its elemental pleasures set amid countless scenes of sucking, licking, penetrating and more. At times, this tawdry tableau rises like a bright balloon out of the sticky world into a better, more ethereal place. For instance, the narrator describes a session with Neva that transports him “into the rosy hazy caverns of dream”:

“It seems to me now that when I was playing with her soft breasts, stroking and squeezing them as carefully as a trained retriever dog fits his mouth around the fresh-killed game bird to bring it intact to the hunter, the pleasure most definitely did not originate in my fingers themselves, although I certainly felt it there; rather, it came out of her, passing into me like a tingling warmth; my hands merely completed the circuit; I could almost see it rising up out of my darling, the loving light of life itself.”

“The Lucky Star” is filled with this sort of prose. At times it provides a sense that love is both miraculous and mundane; at others, it feels like the longest possible candidate for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Ultimately, though, it adds up to a hypnotic, sad and angry novel about people striving to be more than they’re allowed to be — a “seance” of rough living and simple community that rejects no one.

Vollmann’s books embrace everything and everybody, and it is hard to read him without feeling both energized and exhausted. It’s also hard not to wonder what kind of person could produce such things in such volume. In which case it’s worth exploring “Conversations with William T. Vollmann,” edited by Daniel Lukes and published last month, which gathers several decades of interviews and profiles in an effort to contain Vollmann’s multitudes.

He claims to have fought for the mujahedin in Afghanistan; he equates “religious faith and sexual fetishization”; he has been rumored to keep wives “all over the world”; he enjoys dressing up in his female identity of Dolores. The FBI once suspected him of being the Unabomber and made him the subject of a massive tome of its own — 785 pages — before crossing him off the list. It’s hard to imagine that the reductive minds of the FBI could have produced anything as interesting or compassionate as a too-long novel by Vollmann.

Bradfield is the author of “The History of Luminous Motion” and “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”

The Lucky Star

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William T. Vollmann

Viking: 672 pages; $35


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