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FICTION

Last Stories and Other Stories

By William T. Vollman

Viking

704 pages, $36

By Geoff Kelly

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

It is customary, when discussing a book by William T. Vollman, to begin with an appraisal of the author. Some writers – those who make characters of themselves, who are personally present in all their writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, and who are regarded as important figures in contemporary literature – seem to demand that. The prolific, idiosyncratic Vollman is one of them.

However, to begin a review of a collection of short stories with a biography of the author is, nine times in 10, a dead giveaway: It means that the book isn’t very good.

My relationship with Vollman’s writing began with his journalism in the early 1990s for Spin, Harpers and Esquire, among other journals and magazines. He consorted with addicts and sex workers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District; he immersed himself in the American militia movement; he purchased a Burmese sex slave in order to “free” her; he reported on civil wars in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

His pieces were always long; it seemed in those days that no one was given more space than Vollman. The work was often brilliant, evincing thoughtful and sometimes surprising research. Vollman’s writing could be as clear and propelling as a running brook and wildly imaginative.

His writing could be frustrating, too. He often placed his own empathy at the center of his stories, as if his readers might not bring the appropriate emotional response to his subjects without a cue – as if his response was of as much interest as the people and places he captured so well.

He was talented, strange and controversial, and that made him worth reading. But one felt as if a prodigious intellect and immense writing talents had been bestowed upon someone with the appetites of an adult and the solipsistic angst of a teenager. Too much of his work was tinged by self: self-abasement, self-indulgence and ultimately self-importance. More from you, Vollman, one wanted to say, but less of you.

Less, however, does not have a place in the author’s fearsome lexicon.

In addition to his magazine and journal work, he has delivered more than two dozen books since his first novel came out in 1987, ranging from a 3,300-page study of human violence to four of seven novels in a cycle about European settlement of North America. Some of these books have been very good: His last work of fiction, 2005’s “Europe Central,” won a National Book Award. Others are the kind of books that engender much discussion but few readers apart from dedicated fans, of which there are many.

Vollman’s latest, “Last Stories and Other Stories,” has some terrific bursts of descriptive writing and concise, elegantly delivered observations about human relationships with one another, places, time passing and death. A handful of the 32 stories – arranged in nine groups tied together by locations and themes – are terrific from start to finish. But there are many miles of hard traveling in between, presaged by a two-page note to the reader that includes language like this:

“This wall of ill, won’t you view it with me? Through my late father’s binoculars, its aggregates of bloody leaves resemble coral or scrambled eggs, all washed and blended by watercolor fogs. Now let’s step up to count vines and snakes!”

Reading this, and forecasting 700 more pages of the same, I cursed the editor who had sent me the book. Happily, the first brace of three stories, derived from the author’s visits to Sarajevo during and since the Yugoslavian civil war, are Vollman at his best: clean prose, well-drawn characters, gallows humor, sharp insights.

Unhappily, the next time I took sustained pleasure in the book was the author’s collection of sources and notes at the end, which are often far more compelling than the stories they annotate.

After that initial Sarajevo cycle, the stories turn to the fantastic and the macabre: vampires and ghosts, animated statuary, curses and lots of sex, including laughably lurid necrophilia. The author seems to want to create phantasmagoric folktales; the narration is often embellished with intrusions that may be meant to evoke oral traditions. But the writing frequently reflects the dense opacity of the preface and is so heavily ornamented with flamboyant detail and diversions that the reader is lucky to catch even a glimpse of the narrative on which the author hangs his bangles and gewgaws. If he wanted to write folktales, he might have taken a cue from the stripped-down but no less imaginative work of Italo Calvino.

As ever with Vollman, the subject matter and the genre are not the problem: All stories are about sex and death, it’s been said, not because they are the most important things but because there is nothing else.

That axiom strikes me as incomplete: There are the stories themselves; they are the means by which we try to understand everything else. Vollman drowns his stories in self-indulgent flights of his imagination, in his love for his own knowledge of the cultures and histories of the places where his stories unfold. Who does that serve?

Please, please, please, Vollman: Less of you.

Geoff Kelly is a freelance Buffalo writer.