The royal family /

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Main Author: Vollmann, William T.
Format: Book
Published:New York, N.Y. : Viking, 2000.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A sprawling urban epic of obsession, by one of our most ambitious (and idiosyncratic) contemporary writers. Vollmann, in his Seven Dreams series of historical novels about the destruction of native America (The Rifles, 1994, etc.) and in his several works of fiction and nonfiction dealing with the lives of prostitutes in the modern world (The Atlas, 1996, stories; Butterfly Stories, 1993, etc.) has repeatedly demonstrated a prodigious imagination, and the ability to create memorable, if odd or obsessive, characters. But much of his work has also seemed repetitive, burdened with too many detours and authorial asides. This time out, Vollmann has brought these tendencies under control, and the result is a tale that possesses great cumulative power. The plot is relatively simple: Henry Tyler, a down-at-the-heels p.i. in San Francisco, is drawn into the search for a mythic ""Queen of the Prostitutes,"" rumored to hold nocturnal court in the city's seedier precincts. He is still grieving for his lost love, Irene, who committed suicide. Complicating his mourning is the fact that Irene was married to John, his ferociously self-controlled brother. Henry eventually finds the self-styled Queen, but his discovery does little to relieve him of the burden of the past. John fares slightly better; there seems, at the end, at least the slender possibility that he's learned something from his disastrous marriage. The brothers are nicely complex and convincingly odd figures. But the story generates most of its considerable power from the voices of the many prostitutes Henry comes across in his quest. Their tales of addiction and abandonment, of abuse and of survival, are what makes The Royal Family memorable. Vollmann weaves their voices together with the voices of the Tenderloin's other inhabitants--drunks, anonymous johns, wanderers, hustlers--creating a haunting chorus of the lost. He also offers a precise depiction of place, capturing the darker corners of San Francisco with gritty exactitude. Not for the squeamish, certainly. Nonetheless, an intensely readable, often moving, and frequently shocking atlas of modern degradation and despair. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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