Friday, 27 October 2006

The Roayl Family bookcover; VikingReview: The Royal Family, William T. Vollmann (2000)

Running alongside the main narrative arc of this 774-page novel, which shows how Henry Tyler gets involved with the prostitutes of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, is the path traced by his brother, John, a successful lawyer. Henry tends a flame for John’s ethnically-Korean wife, Irene. When Irene suicides, Henry is bereft, driving 300 kilometres south to Los Angeles to visit her grave on those weekends he isn‘t in Sacramento visiting his ageing mother.

John despises Henry, who works as a private detective. John is exacting, driven, and enjoys the finer things of life. While he can quote from Gibbon’s classic history work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he prides himself on being a straight-shooter, telling people how it is. Henry’s involvement with the whores of the Tenderloin is a matter of shame for John.

But Henry is past feeling shame, and even past redemption. The grimy, damp, scabby underbelly of society is a congenial environment for him, and slowly he adapts to its influence.

Both strands of the story are told with feeling and empathy. We get to know both brothers intimately, their secrets and regrets, their aspirations and desires, their loves and hates. Vollmann’s lyrical prose drives the plot along at a ripping pace. Although a very long novel, it seems much shorter because of the unconventional artistry employed in its construction. In fact, it reads like a nineteenth-century novel, and I was frequently surprised by the depth of emotion it elicits from the reader.

Rendered with charm and emotion are the prostitutes of the Tenderloin district. The most volatile and captivating of them all is Domino. She is “a blonde mosquito,” “luminously blonde,” “an old sack of trash,” “one of the most reasonable women in the world,” “the most outspoken,” a woman who “had visions that life would never live up to,” “a mighty beautiful woman,” “angry and unbalanced,” “silver-miniskirted,” “her crooked mouth twitching into a sneer,” “not much given to self-abasement,” “grinning elfishly,” “her long silver fingernails whirling like airplane propellers,” who “just takes it under her tongue and spits it out when she can,” “pitiless,” who “with her crazed lightning flashes of intellect sought only to escape her own torment like a fish wriggling on a gill-hook,” “fitful, terrible, dangerous,” “facing traffic with her hands in her hair,” “a royally vicious pain-in-the-ass bitch,” “intuitively excellent at times”.

The tawdry sleaze inches its way across the page like a shot dog crawling home.

As Tyler & Associates, Investigative Services languishes, Henry’s sentimental education proceeds apace. Henry never seems to get over Irene’s death, and he languishes in his sad furore. He latches onto the charms of the Queen of the Whores, a slim woman named Africa, but even there he seems at a loose end. The finale of the book, told in a cubistic style, is short and sweet, ending the great central section which is filled with characters such as the paedophile Dan Smooth and a bunch of cops and johns.

He strode quickly out, got into his car, and drove back to San Francisco, passing the airport with its gloomily lit runways and warehouses, its planes like robot iguanas waiting for the heat of some unholy day to burst through their dark torpor. Nothing but concrete, lights and fog ahead … The nearest parking garage was a sickening prismatic crystal of light. No security-minded Queen would ever set up shop there.

Highly recommended.

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