In his brilliant new collection of stories (although it reads less like a group of distinct pieces than it does like one extravagant burst of imagination), Vollmann continues to explore the underside of American life. This particular, mostly San Franciscan underside, although festooned with the expected pimps, pornographers, and Thai massage parlor girls, is about as unexpectedly sweet as can be. Vollmann's sympathies are so sincere and far ranging, his vision so fantastically odd, that his sweetness never seems sentimental or counterfeit. In """Flowers in Your Hair," a wonderful, loose-jointed meditation on leaving home and a variety of other things, Vollmann opens with an achingly evocative account of his first attempt to leave home, at age seven, and ends with an aging Japanese whore's comments on travel: "`I used to travel around the world,' Keiko said very dreamily. `I'd go to all those different countries. And now I'm back in the Tenderloin, each person I meet is like a different country, although I only go from hall to hall.'" In between, he meets the usual oddballs--a drunk, some whores, depressed friends--but always with one eye trained on the "rear view mirror of sympathy." This is a great book that opens wide a world of strange and sad beauty.