Loner Author Charts His Own Course

Vollmann's new opus is typical—brilliant, but sometimes unreadable
By Harry Kimball,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 29, 2009 3:46 PM CDT
The Salton Sea.   (AP Photo)
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(Newser) – Author William T. Vollmann is an odd bird—“a loner, a bit of a recluse,” Charles McGrath writes in the New York Times, “and a throwback: a wandering, try-anything writer-journalist in the tradition of Steinbeck or Jack London.” And his new book, Imperial, about Southern California, illegal immigrants, and water, illustrates his kinship with the margins of society. It’s also “an extreme Vollmann production: brilliant in places, practically unreadable in others.”

“When I was a young boy, my little sister drowned, and it was essentially my fault,”says the author, who won the National Book Award in 2005. “It’s like I have to have sympathy … for all the people who have screwed up.” That sympathy does not extend to a reading public daunted by his new book, 1,300 pages long. “The world doesn’t owe me a living, and if the world doesn’t want to buy my books, that’s my problem.”