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Friends on the Street

Poor People

By William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 2007, $29.95 (hardcover)
313 pages, ISBN: 978-0-06-087882-5

William T. Vollmann’s new exploration, Poor People, is not a cracking whodunit. We learn almost nothing we didn’t know about why there are so many hurting souls in our world. The indirect causes, on the other hand, are everywhere, and are well explained, from bad government to big corporations to stupid prejudice. This we have long suspected to be true. What we didn’t know, however, are the individual stories Vollmann teases out and grapples with: local histories, faces. I hadn’t, before picking up the book, heard of the dire situation in western Kazakhstan, and I believe I am are better (and worse, no doubt) for knowing it. I have not walked the streets in a Colombia barrio—I probably never will—but I have to think I’ll be the better for Vollmann’s report.  

 
In the series of portraits which make up the fist part of Poor People, Vollmann meets and talks to people he considers to be poor, asking them both, “Do you consider yourself to be poor?” and, “Why are you poor?” He pays them for their time, which he defends as a flawed but useful investigative technique. He wants to see and record for the sake of his readers, other children of the prosperous West, what the world looks like from behind the eyes of those who have little to nothing, and no real hope of rising up.

Vollmann shows us Natalia, a middle-aged woman who begs for change outside St. Petersburg’s Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. Her children have been taken from her, or have died, or have been abandoned; her story often changes. In response to Vollmann’s inquiry, she says it is her epilepsy, she thinks, which makes her poor, and her life’s story, whatever its ultimate truth, is pitifully grim. We visit a wet, run-down street in Colombia moments after a violent rape has taken place, and pages later a small town in Kazakhstan where a Chevron oilfield has poisoned the terrified local population with toxic gasses. We meet Sunee, an alcoholic office maid in Klong Toey. Sunee has a sweet, caring mother and a bright daughter, but she herself is a depressive ex-prostitute who considers her life to be largely over. “Poverty,” Vollmann decides, “is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state.” Vollmann puzzles over the idea of poverty on a case-by-case basis. His interpreter considers Sunee’s mother fairly well off, but agrees that Sunee herself is poor. An impoverished Pakistani tea house proves oddly comfortable. “Poor countries,” Vollmann observes, “are often richer than ours in time. People work longer, to be sure, but their work can be slow and filled with conversation—at least when they are working for themselves.” Poverty is both heartrendingly real and highly subjective. Vollmann succeeds in convincing us of the folly of rigid categorization. He has not written Poor People to propound a unified thesis, then, but to hold up a series of frames.

Why are you poor?” Vollmann’s catechism does more than just scaffold the book, but not much more. Predictably, the residents of Buddhist cultures bow to samsara while those of ex-Soviet satellites point to the brutality of history. Why are you poor? Theft from above? Chance? Malignant rule? Half destiny and half character (if character is not the same as chance)? A loss of heart? Yes, and yes, and yes. Vollmann cites the UN’s official recommendation, “More aid, better directed,” and sort of laughs it off. More aid from whom? Better directed on whose authority? “It is my hope,” he writes, “that poverty will someday, as the United Nations puts it, go the way of slavery. Alas,” he adds, “slavery remains with us.”

In most societies the rich and poor are kept from one another’s neighborhoods by force, intimidation, and taboo—from above and below. Vollmann insists on crossing both lines and explaining to us what he encounters firsthand. This insistence on the primacy of the surface manifestations of poverty is both the impressionistic strength and structural weakness of Poor People.

Vollmann is capable of rigid scholarship, as his historical novels report to any reader who cracks them; they are magnificent. In Poor People, however, he brings little history (or economic theory, or anthropology) to his meditations. If statistics and theories have so little availed the poor in years past, he implies, they will do nothing for them now. Vollmann’s strategies of hope resonate with poetic truth, but would inevitably fail as policy: “Gambling, drug-taking, and love can all be classed as rituals of hope.” This sentiment, which would guide the altruistic reader into dark corners, strikes a knowing, familiar note with readers of Vollmann’s novels. Hope, for the Tenderloin whores of The Royal Family, is crack and spit; hope, for the wartime victims of Europe Central, is cold sex and the blind gamble of angry, immortal art.

A young Thai girl named Vimonrat, surrounded by poverty, becomes completely absorbed when she draws, for example, a picture of an angel holding an umbrella. To what extent does this remove her from her reality, other than the ways Vollmann hopes it does? Another girl, Elena, draws portraits. Vollmann brings her to a Chagall show in St. Petersburg, and we are allowed a glimpse of her reactions. They are inconclusive. Vollmann’s respectful stance, at what may be a necessary remove from the inner lives of the people he depicts, can’t help but hold his reader at a frustrating distance. There are few leaps of imaginative sympathy of the kind that richly pack his novels. There is, instead, a dogmatic insistence on his inability to inhabit another person’s mind.

This stance lends an arid and open-ended quality to the book. But Vollmann has other means of arresting our attention, often effectively. He is an excellent writer. There’s a touch of anachronism to Vollmann’s prose of the sort that increases the pleasure of reading it, particularly when matched with the loose and eccentric structure of his argument. Just as suffering happens in beautiful places, so the poor in this book inhabit parks where

old ladies fanned themselves and smiled as they played mah-jongg beneath umbrellas and palm trees, with the hot, aromatic breeze from the botanical garden blowing in their faces. Leaning forward, waving their woven leaf fans as slowly and gracefully as catfish move their flippers in restaurant aquariums, they clashed down their tiles.

He paints the cityscape of Nan Ning with enviable lyricism, lets us relax into it, then reveals that he wrote these notes at an internet café where the money he spent on a few hours with a computer would have paid half the yearly salary of a local trash collector. He meets and interviews one such woman. He also includes her picture in the book.

There are over 100 black and white pictures in Poor People. On first glance, before I read the text, I remember finding the pictures sad but unremarkable. I’d passed a few homeless people on the way to the bookstore, after all. To the extent that I wondered about the causes of the varieties of poverty in the pictures, I vaguely blamed governments, multinationals, myself. Vollmann ends up vaguely blaming all of these things as well, but his brief descriptions of the people in the photographs hugely enlarge our emotional understanding. This can be a deeply uncomfortable feeling. When I first came across the photos of Afghani beggar women entirely hidden from view in their soiled burqas, I felt the kind of anger that pricks righteous tears. I can’t champion any culture that encourages its women to cover their faces, particularly when so many of those women are too poor to win the chance of experiencing another way of life. I cannot imagine changing my feelings about this. Vollmann, ever the relativist, sees them through another frame. This is the third nonfiction book in which he reports on his experiences in Afghanistan; it is a culture about which he has learned much. He seems to be close to some proud and dangerous people there, and he spends rather a lot of time in Poor People discussing and defending their cultural decisions. Vollmann would not, of course, defend a man who coerced his wife into wearing a burqa; but, he reminds us that, for an Afghani woman, the burqa may well be an expression of the “normalcy” that shaped her personality. Divorced from her own desire to wear a burqa, she would cease to be a member of her society. And where, he provokes us, does one draw the line between the hijab—which I have no strong feelings about—and the burqa?

The Woman who chooses to show her vulva in a strip club has my respect, because, as Amel said, you can’t force me to wear the burqa. The woman on the bus who covers her private parts, whether she defines those to include only her breasts and groin or whether her face also enters that category, I respect her likewise. Because I guard my own privacy, I must respect that of others. It is our right to withhold ourselves.

One of Vollmann’s themes is the way one’s definition of poverty changes as one’s circumstances change. The tuna fisherman who only needs a dollar a day to survive in Shabwa is not so poor as the beggar woman who needs twice as much, and they are not nearly so poor as the skinny beggar girl with the skin rash (her name was Wan) in photograph #24, who, Vollmann thinks, is probably dead by now.

I told a friend who had read Poor People that I was going to read it too. This man, who self-identifies as poor, didn’t care for the book. “What Vollmann doesn’t get,” he said, “is the sheer anger that develops in people who can’t enjoy the things that they may once have tasted, or that may be enjoyed all around them. He seems out of touch with that anger.” It is true that most of the poor people Vollmann interviews are relatively mild-mannered. Most have always been poor but some, including the affable Big Mountain, have not. One passage my friend particularly objected to was a description of the varying self-reported needs of Vollmann’s interview subjects. One, a beggar in Yemen, said she needed four hundred ryals (about two dollars) every day. This was twice as much as the fisherman from down the road in Shabwa, but considerably more than Vollmann himself: “I needed a hundred dollars a day,” he writes, “to do my job in Yemen.” Vollmann is unblushing about the different world he lives in. Later, he muses on what he would have been like had he been born poor. He would still largely be himself, he decides, but being poor wouldn’t help him develop and express himself. “People can be poor in any and everything,” he decides, “including meaning itself.”

In a long, adventure-style essay in the middle of the book, Vollmann travels to Kazakhstan to see what effect the oil refinery at Tengiz is having on the local town of Sarykamys. The translators and officials in nearby Atyrau seem fearful and unhelpful. Finally, he finds a translator and car and sets off for the refinery. Long into the dark drive, Vollmann sees what looks like a weird sunset on the horizon: “the darkness seemed heavier and puffier around this purple glow which now began to resolve itself into multiple fires.” Past the refinery, the road again becomes rustic. He arrives in Sarykamys in the middle of the night and cannot find anyone to talk with him about the health conditions there. Even his driver wants to leave this “bad place.” Finally, a boy left home alone tells him, “On the one hand, we think about our health, on the other hand we think about money for the oil.” Oil from the Tengiz fields, you see, has a 25 percent hydrogen sulfide content. This excess sulfur must be filtered out. At the time of Vollmann’s visit, large quantities had already leached or drifted into the air or water of Sarykamys. “When we wake up,” an old man tells Vollmann, “we can’t even breathe.” Some of the children have white hair.

Now experiencing the feeling which they call “cold horror,” I knocked on another door, and a woman held up her child and said: You see, he’s one year and three months old, and he cannot walk […] Some doctors from Atyrau told us we have anemia.

Vollmann asks them if they’d like to see the factory closed. It would be difficult, they reply, because so many would lose their jobs. Googling the name of the town today produces some Chevron promotional material about a mandatory government project to relocate the citizens of the town to “just inside” nearby Atyrau. This would have happened five years after Vollmann’s visit in 2000. One wonders how many suffered before the national government or the PR at Chevron developed a concern. One wishes that a journalist like Vollmann could travel again to this unfortunate new ghetto “just inside” Atyrau, and report firsthand about whether the people there are faring any better. What does it smell like in this new slum? What does the food taste like?

And he could ask the people there why they’re poor?” This was asked of me by another writer I drank with a few nights ago. I told her that I had appreciated hearing about Sarykamys and that I was grateful to Vollmann for writing about it. “But you didn’t find out about it until seven years after it happened,” she said, shaking her head. “If he cares about poor people and he wants to help them by educating all the people who aren’t poor, maybe a thick book isn’t the right vehicle. How about a blog? And he could routinely update it with different stories as he made his various travels?” At the time I had no answer for her. What I should have told her is that Vollmann is as interested in settling his own mind as he is in opening ours. And he cares about fine, clear writing, artful structure, the pleasure a reader will take in his book.

The reason his question, “Why are you poor,” does not eventually become trite is because as the book progresses we hear it asked of fewer and fewer people while Vollmann grows more and more thoughtful about the people of whom we’ve already heard it asked. Even so, Poor People remains more a series of interrelated essays than a unified critique. Some of the essays are painfully sad; some are challenging; some, like the story of Gary, the numbers runner in the Philippines who hang-glides, smokes ice, and re-reads David Foster Wallace, are fun to read. Poor People, despite its distance, is a worthy book. If we require that Vollmann share his paycheck with his subjects before we can feel fully justified in picking up a copy, perhaps we could do to share our own. Hard times are everywhere.

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John Cotter has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in journals such as
Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake, Good Foot, Volt, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia
Journal of American Studies, Cutbank Poetry, and 3rd Bed
. In 2007 his work
was anthologized in Oh One Arrow, the premier anthology from Flim Forum
Press, and will be anthologized next year in Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology
of Younger Poets
. He lives in Boston where he has just completed the
manuscript of a novel, Under the Small Lights, excerpts of which can be read
online at johncotter.net.