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`Why are you poor?'

Poor People William T. Vollmann Ecco: 464 pp., $29.95

March 04, 2007|Edward Champion | Edward Champion, a San Francisco writer, hosts the literary blog "Return of the Reluctant," which can be found at

THE prolific writer William T. Vollmann once traveled to the Arctic, nearly freezing to death, to know what it was like to feel cold and hungry. He smoked crack cocaine with prostitutes to hear their true-blue tales. He survived a mine explosion in a Balkan war zone, with a close friend and another man dying in the Jeep he was sitting in. He authored a 3,300-page treatise, "Rising Up and Rising Down," which examined various forms of violence, applying them to a moral compass.

These rugged credentials suggest the right author for a book on poverty. But "Poor People," which has the comparatively well-off Vollmann compiling his conversations with the downtrodden, is fragmentary and often contradictory in tone, much like poverty itself. In his book's "dictionary" section, Vollmann defines being "poor" as "lacking and desirous of what I have; unhappy in his or her own normality." But Vollmann, traveling to Thailand, the Philippines, Russia and several other nations, never quite pinpoints a norm. He styles his own "phenomena" of poverty as an alternative to the United Nations' "dimensions of poverty." But if Vollmann wishes to take the U.N. to task, a book composed largely of anecdotes and meditative banter may not be the best way to do so.

The book (as Vollmann avers) is not "a companion monument to 'Das Kapital,' " although Marx is dutifully cited throughout. Nor does it offer any clear solutions to poverty, despite a helpful income table that offers international rankings and stacks foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar. The book possesses something of a structure, with Vollmann framing his adventures within itemized perceptions and hopes, substituting his photographs for verbal millefiori and practicing his eager cross-referencing.

But he digresses more than he pinpoints. His semantics shift as frequently as the countries he visits. He offers a bold statement ("[P]overty is never political"), only to uproot it chapters later with a telltale parable of how postwar Stalinism diminished a hard-working family. The one constant within this curious miasma is the question that Vollmann posed to each of his subjects: "Why are you poor?" Answers range from denial to blaming Allah.

This is not to suggest that Vollmann lacks observational insight. His clear empathy for the vanquished and misunderstood compels him to record the specific circumstances that entrap them. Examples include an Imperial County, Calif., squatter financially crippled by a ticket for a cracked windshield, and Chinese B-girls who were ensnared into prostitution to pay for their Japanese visas.

Vollmann frequently uses cultural disparities to subvert perceptions about poverty. He talks with a Muslim in Taliban Afghanistan in 2000 who boasts that American men use their women "like tissue paper," whereas the Muslim can "respect" a woman in his culture because it also keeps her in a hijab. Vollmann judges this gender subjugation preferable to South Africa's former apartheid, because the Taliban system, in his view, is "an accidental result of fanatical literalism." While this seems a needlessly provocative comparison, Vollmann does have a point about visible segregation, however ignoble, being better than the occasionally less obvious practices of an affluent society.

Vollman also contemplates the consequences of corporate greed, as in an oil town in Kazakhstan where the locals breathe poisonous sulfur fumes that kill them. As he puts it, "No doubt, in my ignorance of the 'necessary' 'realities' of oil extraction, about the virtues of America's God-given right to drive to the shopping mall, about the altruistic statesmanship and incidental greed of Kazakhstan's politicians, I am misconstruing all this."

Elsewhere, however, he is naive about his subjects. Of a Thai cleaning woman, he suggests that "she might never have toiled and drunk her life away" had a small-scale agricultural industry existed to save her. But as David K. Shipler showed in his book "The Working Poor," stable jobs alone are not a panacea. While Vollmann confesses that his "rich and intellectual friends are happy and sad," it's disingenuous to ignore psychological makeup when considering the impoverished.

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