cover image The Atlas: 8

The Atlas: 8

William T. Vollmann / Author Viking Books $29.95 (496p) ISBN 9

Last year could be remembered as a year in which the prolific young Vollmann did not publish a book; early 1996, however, shows that he wasn't sitting on his hands. This massive tome collects ""tales"" and ""snapshots"" of his travels over the past five years into something resembling ""The World According to Me."" Although Vollmann's style is to play it coy with respect to what is fact and what is fiction, there is no mystery as to who is doing the talking here: it is the same persona we've seen in all his books (The Rifles; Whores for Gloria; etc.), a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port. And indeed, Atlas sports quite an itinerary: from Mt. Etna to Zagreb, with stops in dozens of places, none of which will surprise readers of Vollmann's previous travelogues. Unfortunately, for all the traveling, Vollmann never manages to escape his own obsessions. Whether he is discoursing on drinking beer or shooting heroin or smoking crack or chewing khat in San Francisco, Bangkok or Kenya, the reader is treated to the same lovelorn teddy-bear pining after a devastated whoredom, as if the world can be reduced to a rainy afternoon in a bug-infested hotel room. The Vollmann character throws money around (within limits), makes halting efforts at moral education, professes his love and then starts another chapter. Is this the noblesse oblige of the post-partisan American? Despite a structure that Vollmann says, in his preface, is a thematic palindrome, intrepid readers may find it a thematic monotone. (Apr.)