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William T. Vollmann's pistol-packing past

November 1, 2009 |  7:24 am


In our pages today, books editor David L. Ulin profiles William T. Vollmann, the 50-year-old author of mammoth, prizewinning works. His new book, "Imperial," is a 1,300-page complex and layered look at California's Imperial County. Ulin writes:

To write it, he spent 10 years visiting Imperial County, interviewing hundreds of people, reading history and public records, soaking up folklore. The result is a hybrid -- curious only if you're unfamiliar with Vollmann's work -- a massive, multilayered look at the border region of southeastern California, from the Colorado River to the Coachella Valley, Mexicali to the Salton Sea. Merging journalism and narrative, sociology and myth, the book is less about Imperial County than the place Vollmann calls Imperial, which exists most firmly in his mind.

Vollmann, who has put himself in harm's way in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Arctic Circle in order to write about them, once brought that sense of danger to his readings. In August of 1992, he came to Beyond Baroque in Venice, and Susan Salter-Reynolds was there:

It's the ides of August. Literary life across the country slows to a halfhearted crawl. But in Venice, Calif., in the old City Hall built in 1907, writers in Beyond Baroque's Reading Series continue to push the limits of literature.

The Reading Series hosts 80 authors a year. On a recent muggy Friday night we went out to hear a double bill: Darius James and William Vollmann, two brave new authors. Vollmann, whose most recent books are "Fathers and Crows" and "An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World," has gotten a lot of mainstream praise in the publishing world, and has been compared to Pynchon and Burroughs. He looks, however, like someone who just walked off the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. It wasn't the plaid shirt or the farmer's hat that said "butterfly." It was the metal case that looked as though it once held a high-school clarinet. From it, Vollmann unpacked a small revolver, scanning the audience with his computer-programmer eyes. To punctuate the reading, Vollmann would point the gun at the ceiling and fire. Blanks, but in a black room rapidly filling with smoke and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, who can be sure? By the third shot, anxiety made it impossible to concentrate on the story Vollmann was reading. (For the record, it was about the Iroquois, and it contained several graphic descriptions of torture.)

Salter-Reynolds writes that she cornered James to ask about his work. Vollmann, she left alone.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: William T. Vollmann in 2009. Credit: Robert Durell / For The Times