The prolific novelist, journalist, and essayist William Vollmann possesses a readership divided between passionate followers who laud his every book, and critics who consider his work garrulous and unwieldy. Flipping through Poor People, I found myself siding at first with the critics. The book—Vollmann calls it an essay—is indeed unwieldy, its 294 pages followed by 20 pages of notes and 128 more of photographs. But by the time I finished, I had repented and changed my mind.
Poor People is an eccentric travelogue in which Vollmann sets out across several continents to report on what the poor say about their lives. “Do you consider yourself poor?” “Why do you think some people are poor and others are rich?” “What about the Communist idea that people are poor because the rich take everything from them?” Vollmann puts such questions to people like Sunee in Thailand, a woman wracked by alcoholism and laboring in a cleaning company for a boss who overworks her and pays her a pittance. Sunee professes belief in “the Buddhist way,” insisting that “some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life.” Vollmann rejects the Marxist notion that such ideas reflect a “false consciousness,” numbing the poor to the misery of their own plight and impeding a revolutionary process that might ameliorate their situation. He is skeptical of such theorizing and prefers to linger over more personally probing questions: “If Sunee, who’s condemned to a moderately atrocious existence, chooses not to call herself exploited, should we take her word for it?”
This book presents readers not with big ideas about “poverty” or sweeping generalizations concerning “the poor,” but rather with specific poor people—their names and faces, detailed records of their thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. Vollmann tries to let the poor people he encounters define their own lives and the nature of their poverty. There is, for example, his portrait of Annah, an elderly homeless woman on a street in Yemen, who when asked why some people are poor, responds, “Allah chose. For me it’s no problem. And I am happy.” Natalia, a beggar in St. Petersburg, is a widow whose children were taken from her and placed in an orphanage. She has been institutionalized several times, and attributes her misfortunes to a lifelong struggle with epilepsy that she believes traces to a tick bite she suffered shortly after her birth in 1956. In still another portrait, Vollmann writes of two middle-aged men in Kyoto who lost good company jobs because of restructuring. They now collect cans for recycling in order to buy food they cook outside their cardboard shack. When Vollmann asks about their dreams for the future, one replies, “corporation president,” the other, “make a society that is easier to live in.”
Vollman reminds us that although they are typically viewed as victims whose actions tend to be self-destructive, “poor people possess some ability to choose.” He lets us know that he himself will not disparage those choices. “Because I wish to respect poor people’s perceptions and experiences,” he writes, “I refuse to say that I know their good better than they.” In the chapter “Amortization,” Vollmann describes the choice prostitutes make in renting their bodies. Erika, the Chinese girl strolling the streets of Tokyo; Lotus, the forty-year-old wife, mother, and student using her escort revenue to save her house from foreclosure; Tiffany, the street prostitute turning tricks in a crack-infested hotel in San Francisco—they all “chose prostitution” in some sense, having “amortized themselves” in exchange for material security.
At a refinery in Kazakhstan, Vollmann makes the same point about oil workers whose jobs expose them to an alarmingly high incidence of asthma, anemia, and other debilitating maladies. Yes, the workers worry about their health, but they stay for the pay, in effect exchanging their health for money. A similar exchange is made by Chinese peasants illegally entering Japan with the aid of “snakehead” smugglers who demand years of indentured service as payment. In effect, the peasants ask themselves, “Should I live in poverty, or should I take the most feasible escape, which will probably require me to do things I would otherwise refrain from doing (prostitution, theft, etc.) and which will indefinitely indenture me to brutal masters in an alien land?” To speak of such servitude as voluntary may seem harsh, but Vollmann concludes that “everybody, even a condemned prisoner in his death cell, retains some degree of moral freedom.”
The penultimate section of the book, “Hopes,” cites a UN report calling for “more aid, better directed.” Vollmann questions the utility of such general recommendations, wondering whether the hopes they raise “may be a fantasy.” In his view, hope placed in vague proposals for reform is not fundamentally different from hope placed in, say, the lottery. Of an American who each night rides his motorcycle through the dark streets and jungle roads of the Phillipines, delivering results and picking up new tally sheets for a Filipino numbers game, Vollmann writes that “he was the hope artist, the one who might conduct anyone on this island to heaven if the passenger had only bought the right ticket.” His point is that none of us is fully certain whether his rituals of hope are well founded or illusory, whether they involve pushing for economic reform, filing for food stamps, playing the lottery, or playing the market. Between rich and poor, hope is a great leveler. And poor people are hardly the only ones who amortize their health and labor.
That doesn’t mean Vollmann overlooks the real differences between rich and poor. In the book’s final section, “Placeholders,” he describes a building he owns in Sacramento with a parking lot where people congregate at night around campfires to drink, smoke cigarettes and crack, and sometimes pass out. Vollmann lets them congregate, even sometimes hangs out with them. But he is guarded around them, and at times afraid. He acknowledges that he is the one who sets the terms of these encounters: “I always come out to them; I never let them in to me.” “I know I am rich,” writes Vollmann; and later, “I think you are rich.” The “you” here is us, his readers, who are probably rich, he reasons, since this is a difficult book, and people who take the time to read such a book are almost all rich.
To his credit, Vollmann acknowledges that Poor People is not likely to be met with enthusiasm by poor people. Nor is it likely to be met with enthusiasm by rich people who approach poverty only as a problem to be solved. Poor People issues no proclamations and provides no solutions. Instead, it focuses on the lives and circumstances of some poor people, refusing to reduce them to objects to be pitied, or to dismiss their self-descriptions as misguided or pathological. The result is a remarkably realistic essay that works to close the gap between poor people and “us.” After all, any of “us” can be abandoned by a spouse or bitten by a tick or lose a good job due to restructuring. Such things happen. And when they do, any of us could get drawn into trading our freedom through anaesthetization (booze, drugs) or amortization (credit cards, home equity loans), and end up seeing our difficulties in terms of destiny or providence. In such circumstances we might well find Vollmann’s approach to be humane, wise even, or at least refreshingly free of cliché. “Poor people,” he writes, “are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as I do myself.” For those who regard poor people as especially loved by God, and for those called to serve them, these are words to repeat like a mantra.