22 June 2008

Whores for Gloria: "Whores and undertakers are the only eternal optimists."

Whores for Gloria
William T. Vollmann
Pantheon Books, 1991

Difficult to read, impossible to put down.

That it came highly recommended by my good friend Michael "Berkeley Mike" McCamish, Ph.D. surprised me a little; after all, he's the same dude who recommended Mr. God, This is Anna a few years back, and that book is almost diametrically opposed to this one. I knew in the first few pages what about this novel had so gripped Mike, though, because I too felt its pull. Although I never lived in the Tenderloin or worked with the many homeless in San Francisco's Mission district like Mike did, I still experienced enough of that side of "the City" back in my years as a grad school poseur.

Whores for Gloria is sleek and obsidian, lit up like the marquee on the O'Farrell Theatre, gritty like the residue that flows down the gutter on Larkin, covered with bits of blackened bubble gum and the tang of stale urine. Its prose illuminates the sublime within a painful, despairing, unsparing reality--the street life of the homeless, whores, and junkies of the City by the Bay. This is shock value with substance, the darkest side of urban life--the ugly, the downtrodden, the "murdered whores with their cunts removed," the raped, the abused, the discarded. Vollmann's evocative prose and spare settings demand that the reader pick up the rhythm or get left behind. The story flows like a sewer (rather than a "stream") of consciousness, and even when the action takes place "outside" a character's head, it catches the flow of the streets, the lack of self-consciousness perhaps indicated by the consistent lack of quotation marks. Vollmann is definitely not a writer for those to whom the whole world must be "cutey all the time."
An aged blonde clopped by like a horse as she inhaled on her cigarette, and her face was lined with grief. --Laredo shifted her aching feet, wishing that the night would end although she was well aware that by the laws of astronomy the night would not end till morning; neither, it seemed, would the drunk on the pay phone. (p. 3)

The novel begins with Laredo, an undercover cop, watching Jimmy, one of the city's homeless thousands, laughing/crying into a pay phone.
The man laughed. He hung up. He winked at Laredo and sauntered off whistling. But Laredo was no fool. She knew that the pay phone had been broken for weeks. And she knew that the man was still crying. (p. 7)

Jimmy, a down-and-out Vietnam vet and full-time wino, pursues the mysterious "Gloria" (whose name made me think of the Christmas carol refrain, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"). His regular visits to the streetwalkers, which vacillate between businesslike and brutal, are all carried out in her name.
The truth is that Jimmy tried never to stop thinking of Gloria. Even when he bent women over as they spread the cheeks of their buttocks apart so that he could fuck them up their assholes which bulged like the ends of sausage-casings, he was thinking of Gloria. (p. 18)

Jimmy begins to collect stories from his lady friends and seems intent on using these stories to "recreate" Gloria. One begins to suspect that perhaps Gloria is merely a figment of Jimmy's fevered imagination, rather than being a lover lost to whatever lament has brought Jimmy to this sorry state.
Jimmy was smiling; he was leaning back against a column of washing machines, fingering Melissa's memories as though they were breasts, the softness and succulence of them; he could twist them into different shapes as he sucked on them; he kissed their round pink areolae of sadness and tried not to mind them; he squeezed them and their nipples budded. (pp. 27-28)

Vollmann tears through the veil between the reader's perfect world and the unimaginable pain and desperation--that is still somehow also just everyday life--of those wandering through a fog of opiates, delirium, or shell shock.
Shit, he sighed. Every last one of us betrayed by the VC. Jimmy brainwashed, the Wrecking Crew all dropped dead, Riley God knows where, and me left to fend for myself here in the middle of motherfucking Hanoi, USA. Nothing to do, nothing to do. Wanna kill those Chinese Charlies! Come out and fight! he shouted.

Nobody came.

Guess I won that one, said Code Six, and he lay down on the sidewalk and went to sleep... (p. 124)

In the end we discover (or do we, given the tenuous grasp that so many of these wretches have on what we call "reality"?) that Gloria is real. And that Jimmy is no longer.
I turn around, man, and here comes Jimmy with his whore chasin' him! Usually were the other way around, weren't it? Damn! And she drilled his motherfuckin' ass, good and proper. Oh, man! --Code Six chuckled until poor Riley thought he must dissolve under the stench. -- Jimmy comes in, the bitch comes in, just lit him up, right there! And she killed him dead right in front of the whole goddamned restaurant, and there were about twenty people in there, cooks and all--right bare-ass from my eyes! I said, motherfucker, I was safer back in Nippon, man, 'cause at least that way I know where the field of fire is! And that was how Jimmy died. Died like a hero. I never did find out what he had done. But you might 'a' knowed his ass, man. And might 'a' knowed her! It was old Gloria! (p. 138)

As noted above, in spite of its incredibly dark, painful, and brutal subject matter, Vollmann's language and storytelling fill the entire book with a dark radiance that is redemptive if not hopeful. It turns out that, according to an interview with Vollmann, that there is a reason for this. He feels that prostitutes are very spiritual people, who give of themselves to save marriages and to provide comfort to the loneliest, most desperate among us. He noted that, at the same time they fill these essential needs prostitutes also spread disease and often rob their clients. If the ability to hold in one's mind two contradictory thoughts at one time defines genius, then Vollmann's novel certainly qualifies.

Thanks for the recommendation Mike!

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