William T. Vollmann

  • After the Deluge

    Richard Lloyd Parry’s very touching and thought-provoking book Ghosts of the Tsunami tells how the community of Okawa, Japan, was affected by the Great Tohoku Disaster: the earthquake and resulting tidal wave of March 11, 2011. On that day, the tidal surges struck Okawa’s primary school, killing seventy-four of the seventy-eight children present, and ten of the eleven teachers.

    To write his account, Lloyd Parry—the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London and the author of the true-crime book People Who Eat Darkness—visited the locality for six years. His achievement reminds me of the

  • Maidan Voyage

    IN THE EAST ARE THE PRO-RUSSIAN Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. Southward lies Crimea, snatched by Russia in 2014. The rest of the nation sprawls inchoately westward, historically arbitrary in its flickering borders, beset by corruption, inflamed with bigotry, rich in folk culture, inspired and tormented by myriad identities. Even the next ten years in Ukraine resist prophecy; the next fifty remain utterly unknowable. The two slender books under review will soon be as dated as any dispatch from the last days of Yugoslavia. But to the extent that nationalism repeats itself, and great power

  • Twists of Hate


    “WE HAD REACHED THE CROSS ROADS before noon and had shot a French civilian by mistake. . . . Red shot him. It was the first man he had killed that day and he was very pleased.” So far, this incident, and the style in which it is told, would be appropriate for either Redeployment or The Corpse Exhibition, two new works of fiction about the Iraq war, the first by Phil Klay, a former marine who served in Iraq during the surge, and the second by Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi filmmaker and writer who moved to Finland as a refugee in 2004. In fact it comes from a late Hemingway story called “Black Ass

  • Let’s Get Lost

    Going off the grid has always been an American aspiration. From the Quakers who fled English persecution, to David Koresh, who vainly hoped to build his own world in Waco, Texas, to that earlier generation of Texans who with the help of the US Army tore themselves away from the feeble Mexican grid, bringing half of Mexico with them, our people have set their faces hard away from the order and authority of others. What could express this ideal more faithfully than the pulps? James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales retail the now quaintly preposterous exploits of a self-sufficient woodsman

  • Polymorphous Adversity

    No one who has read Péter Nádas’s novel A Book of Memories (1997) will be surprised that the very first character introduced in Parallel Stories, a middle-aged man who happens to be a corpse, immediately becomes an object of desire: The male police officer investigating the scene sniffs the dead man’s penis in order to determine what kind of sex it might have recently had. Let’s pretend that he’s all business; “the secretion tests would provide exact details.” Meanwhile, the student who discovered the body—in Berlin, just after the dismantling of the wall—finds himself called upon by God to

  • Empire of the Senseless

    John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun is a multivisaged portrait of our United States at the turn of the twentieth century—time of bully imperialism (democracy exported to Cuba and the Philippines with the aid of Krag rifles), Tammany politics, and Jim Crow. At more than nine hundred pages, Sayles’s canvas is grand, his chosen epoch fascinatingly alien to, not to mention sadly similar to, our own. It’s a brutal picaresque complete with melancholy whores, militaristic robber barons, desperate cutthroat prospectors, and puppet soldiers. Plenty of sorrow to go round!

    Of all the novels in the genre

  • Emotion Picture Projector

    IF THAT SWEETMEAT of American Revolution agitprop called Johnny Tremain was ever a part of your childhood, then you probably encountered the illustrations of Lynd Ward. In one of them, we see Johnny slouching sadly by a wall, eavesdropping on Boston’s commercial life. A man in a cocked hat carries two long planks on his shoulder; a Puritan type strains backward, pulling a reluctant horse; somebody staggers under the symmetrical weight of two buckets. Johnny was a gifted (and arrogant) silversmith’s apprentice. Now his hand is crippled. His master has no more use for him. He must find a new

  • culture October 19, 2009

    Crossers by Philip Caputo

    Only now, with a half-century of my life already over, have I finally learned whom to turn to for a good potboiler in my next wasting sickness!

  • Seeing Eye to Eye

    How should we parse a documentary image that directly or indirectly portrays evil, injustice, anguish? What rights and duties, if any, does our understanding engender?

    I begin with Paul Garson’s Album of the Damned: Snapshots from the Third Reich. The majority of the photographs were composed, we are informed, by Wehrmacht soldiers who were amateur photographers. How could such a compilation fail to fascinate? Unfortunately, while Garson the compiler deserves my gratitude, Garson the commentator is extraordinarily unequal to his subject. At the zenith of his acumen, he compares one benign-looking