Review

Poor People

by William T. Vollmann

The
author of this book, William T. Vollmann, has won the National Book
Award, the Pen Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul
Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writer's Award. He describes his own
life in the kind of degraded neighborhood he so assiduously
explores in POOR PEOPLE, an area of Sacramento where people have
tunneled under the modern city into the beehive of the 19th-century
sub-city. They break holes in the walls of the pawnshops to
re-steal stolen articles and resell them to buy drugs. Vollman's
apartment windows have "mesh over the bars," and before the mesh he
was unable to take tinfoil off the window panes without being
encroached on by his ever-watchful neighbors.

This experience, which of course he takes on by choice, has not
sullied his view of the poor, with whom, throughout this long,
lyrical and often tortured look at what makes people poor, he is
always sympathetic. Vollman describes an encounter with an "armless
man who knelt beside the topmost step of a pedestrian overpass in
Bangkok…using his teeth for his hands, begging submissively."
When he discovers that the man has cleverly folded his arms behind
him, Vollman could feel cheated of the coins he'd been dropping in
his cup; but he realizes that the man needs the money more than he
does. "I continued to pay the tithe, and with a cheerful
heart."

Vollman uncovers every sort of poverty as he ranges through the
urban and rural byways of the world. Some, it seems, is systemic,
generational; other poverty has come by the bad luck of political
upheaval or through personal misjudgments. Many poor people have a
belief system that allows them to accept being poor; others lash
out in anger at their fate. Consider "the old man in Tokyo who sat
on the sidewalk reading a comic book and stinking of urine." The
author asked him his perennial question: Why are you poor? The old
man "threw his comic book on the ground and shouted: It's my
fault! Nobody else's responsibility!
"

A prostitute guide led him through the backstreets of Nan Ning,
China, and introduced him to a group of dispossessed farmers who
had been given property deeds by Mao and now, under the new regime,
have to buy new ones at a price they can't afford. There is a
picture of one such man (the book is enhanced by black-and-white
photographs) holding his old deed, and on his face is an expression
that hides, to the Western eye, the fury he expressed. The
prostitute's wise advice to the poor: "Everything you should do by
yourself."

But how can that advice help the California squatter who had to go
to court to answer to the charge of cracking a windshield and came
home to find his dog choked to death on its leash? Vollmann opines,
"A mansion, a new Mercedes and a professional dogwalker would have
almost infallibly prevented these particular ills."

POOR PEOPLE is a slow, subtle travelogue through the world of
poverty that lies just beyond the parts of our planet that surround
our airports, car rental agencies, safe houses and decent eateries.
Vollman has included a list of probable wages of the people he
encountered, ranging from $1.00 a day (or less) to his own salary
of approximately $100.30 per day. He considers himself rich,
defining poverty as "lacking and desirous of what I have; unhappy
in his or her own normality." He writes without an agenda but not
without feeling. His book is courageously conceived and deftly
executed, and deserves, for its author, another prize.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 19, 2011

Poor People
by William T. Vollmann

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2007
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sociology
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0060878827
  • ISBN-13: 9780060878825