cover image The Royal Family

The Royal Family

William T. Vollmann / Author Viking Books $40 (672p) ISBN 978-

Ambitious in style, in range, and in sheer volume, Vollmann's massive new novel continues the controversial projects of Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories, in which the prolific author aims to create a detailed fictional map of a modern-day red-light district and of the people who try to live there. John Tyler is a successful San Francisco lawyer; his brother, Henry, is a dodgy private eye in love with John's Korean wife, Irene. When Irene commits suicide, the siblings' bitterness becomes apparent. A grieving Henry frequents the prostitutes of SF's notorious Tenderloin district; John edges towards marrying his mistress, Celia. A brutal businessman named Brady has hired Henry to track down the ""Queen of Whores."" Pedophile and police informant Dan Smooth finally leads Henry to the Queen, an African-American woman of indeterminate age and immense psychological insight. Rather than turn her over to Brady, Henry warns her about him. Gradually the Queen helps Henry shed his grief for Irene by leading him down the dark, dank staircase of sexual and social degradation. He learns about masochism, golden showers and other unusual practicesDand about love. But the Queen's command of her realm is imperiled: Brady wants to import her Tenderloin prostitutes for his Las Vegas sex emporium. Vollmann is after large-scale social chronicle; he includes characters from nearly every walk of life, and trains his attentions on processes not often seen by the faint of heart: cash flow, blood flow, phone sex, Biblical apocrypha (the Book of Nirgal) and the body odor of crackheads. But this hypperrealistic novelist also aims to present a metaphysics: the two brothers stand for two kinds of human being, the chosen and the outcast. As in all Vollmann's novels, the author's encylopedic ambition sometimes overwhelms the human scale; some supporting characters, though, do stay vivid. Vollmann avoids simply glamorizing the outcasts but remains, deep down, a Blakean romantic: prostitution is for him not only the universal indictment of the human race but also, paradoxically, the only paradise we can actually visit. 5-city author tour. (Aug.)