I don’t believe that I have ever heard a critic or a reader accuse William T. Vollmann of writing tight, exacting prose. Fact is, most of Vollmann’s work is a little shaggy. But it’s still good, fleas and all. If you are interested in a gritty representation of the world of sex, drugs, and hobos riding the rails, then I recommend Vollmann’s novel Royal Family. This big, hairy novel is the third text in Vollmann’s Prostitution Series which started with Whores For Gloria, followed by Butterfly Stories. In these novels the author deals with sex trade, street drugs, violence, social hierarchy, spiritual awakening, death, Lady Boys, and the best way to hop a train to Barstow. I don’t believe there is a strong requirement to read the novels in order but since they go from shorter to longer, it might be a good idea.
Anyone reading Vollmann immediately realizes that Vollmann exposes the reader to real people, real places, and real human activities, even though it’s all fictional.
The basic narrative of Royal Family is two brothers, one who is working with a powerful businessman (crook?) developing a Las Vegas sex complex where any act is available in a virtual circus of perversion. The other brother is a private detective who is hired to find the Queen of Whores in San Francisco. At least this is how it starts out but the detective eventually finds the Queen, discovers the vast underground of prostitution and drugs, and becomes homeless and destitute, living in hobo camps and riding the rails, always searching for dead Queen. Worlds upon worlds.
It helps if the reader is familiar with San Francisco and Sacramento. Vollmann is very exacting in his geographical background, following the streets and rivers, living in neighborhoods or under bridges, driving highways or riding under a grainer on the rails.
The turn is when the new Queen has sold out to Las Vegas and is now a part of the world of the virtual sex scam.
It’s long and detailed but Royal Family is a clearly Dantesque exploration of the many levels of human existence. There may not be circles but we can take that trip along Geary from the Sutra Baths into the heart of the Tenderloin. Will we find salvation under a highway bridge in Miami?
Apropos to the world William Vollmann uses as the background of much of his novel Royal Family I did a little background research since I was more familiar with the San Francisco of the fifties and sixties. Here is an interesting documentary: