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There are nightmare flies aplenty in what follows. Each of these disturbing stories -- the book is a combination of fiction and autobiography -- is headed with a location and a date, as this obsessed and gifted chronicler globe hops from Sarajevo to Inuit Canada to Rangoon to dozens of other locales. Wherever the setting, the place is hell. Its residents live in torment, and Vollmann's own character is as vulnerable and wounded as anyone. Often the accounts concern whores and their johns. In Butterfly Stories (1), the narrator returns to Phnom Penh to look for his wife, a dance hall girl with the unlikely name of Vanna, whom he left there two years previously. In the end, he thinks he recognizes her as he buys her for a dance, understanding "the rule, which was as brutal as life: As long as he could keep dancing with her (and paying to dance), she'd still be his."
"White boys inhale too fast," says the hooker in The Best Way to Smoke Crack, "'cause they think if they do they'll get more high." This is a place nonfiction doesn't often go. In the second of the Butterfly Stories, a furious hooker berates the narrator, then makes him have sex with her without a condom, at the same time telling him that she has AIDS. "Can you feel my death crawling inside of you?" she asks. It's a world of pain, in which the narrator uses the temporary drug of perpetual motion because to stop would be to die.
In the title story, the narrator takes a train north into Canada, exhausted, yet flipping through the rest of the book's places in his head. "Everywhere he went, he'd say to himself: There's nothing for me here anymore. No more nowhere nobody." Leaving that nearly still center of this palindrome-like book, we re-enter the dangerous turf Vollmann takes for his own. Formally and otherwise, The Atlas is a tour de force. --Salon
From the jungle to the tundra, from the smog of L.A. to the fog of Hong Kong, from bullfights in Mexico City to firefights in Sarajevo, these stories, often drawing on Vollmann's own travels and life, mingle autobiography and invention, creating a provocative, sometimes dizzying, hybrid. Among the most resonant pieces are the unsparing description of childhood loss of a sister, and a tale set in Bosnia, involving an incident when a friend was shot dead in a car in which the author was also riding. Loves lost also figure prominently: the tender prostitute Vollmann met during his first trip to Phnom Penh; a lame Ojibway in Winnepeg, whose husband took him on a drunk; his first girlfriend, now married with children and locked in a battle with breast cancer. Diverse adventures, which also have a way of distancing the writer from his world, mingle with the sexual ones. He pays to go on a walrus hunt with an old Inuit and his grandsons and is mostly ignored, cuts short a night of ringside kickboxing in Bangkok when the sport's brutality overwhelms him, and is tolerated by urban aborigines in Sydney only as long as the beer he's bought holds out. Despite their distanced quality, these fantasies and terrifying visions of underclass reality at every latitude and longitude are poetically, damningly precise.
As in other recent work from Vollmann, however, repetitive images seem to reiterate rather than advance the theme, turning terrific writing into tedium. One weeps somewhat reflexively for the lost souls mirrored in these fragments; more heartfelt, unfortunately, is a horror at the squandering of such a prodigious prose talent.