three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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A-Poor PeopleWilliam T. Vollmann traveled around the world asking, "Why are you poor?" Poor People, a book of 128 black-and-white photographs and vignettes organized around such themes as "self-definitions," explores why people believe they’re poor. In Thailand, Vollmann befriends Sunee, an alcoholic cleaning woman who owns her own home but thinks her poverty comes from a sinful former life. In California’s Imperial County, Chinese girls become prostitutes to pay for their visas, and an auto ticket impoverishes a squatter. Russia, Yemen, Iraq, Mexico, and Kazakhstan exhibit culturally distinct stories of individuals filled with pride, pain, optimism, hopelessness, and everything in between. While Vollmann never produces answers or solutions to poverty, he explores his own moral terrain: "My fear of people whom I define as poor is part of what defines me as rich."
Ecco. 314 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0060878827

San Diego Union-Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann, lionized by devoted fans and admiring critics, emerges here as a writer of immense talent and originality, a profoundly moral man filled with doubts and contradictions, a fellow mortal who struggles to do the best he can with what he has been given. Exactly like the poor people he celebrates and deplores. Exactly like all of us." Judy Goldstein Botello

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"At times he seems like a United Nations relief worker, helping the destitute out on the ground and then having to write up a bureaucratic white paper for internal use. … You can feel poverty as a body rash, the prose causing you to scratch even though there is no itch. … Only a masochistic—which Vollmann is—holidays in Chernobyl." Douglas Brinkley

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Like almost everything Vollmann has written, Poor People is experimental in its form, daunting in its intellectual range, shot through with self-deprecation, occasionally annoying because of its digressions, and always unfailingly interesting. … Vollmann finds that impoverished people the world over think of themselves as rich—in mind if not in material goods—and think of the materially wealthy as deprived spiritually." Steven Weinberg

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Strip away the theory, and you have a glorified travelogue, one that prides itself as much on geographical as intellectual adventure. … The best parts of Poor People, like a 1995 episode in the Philippines called ‘The Rider,’ are the self-contained ones: anecdotal, sharply observant, playful, unpretentious and frankly ambivalent about Mr. Vollmann’s presence on the page." Janet Maslin

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, William T. Vollmann’s Poor People portrays the distress of the rich more effectively than that of the poor. … It would be easy to lose patience with Mr. Vollmann altogether, but in the end his compulsive self-doubt helps to rescue his book." William Easterly

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Poor People, which has the comparatively well-off Vollmann compiling his conversations with the downtrodden, is fragmentary and often contradictory in tone, much like poverty itself. … Poverty’s complexities demand more, particularly from such an important author." Edward Champion

Critical Summary

William T. Vollmann is an erudite, complex writer. Most recently, he explored 20th-century authoritarianism in the National Book Award–winning Europe Central ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005). Poor People raised inevitable comparisons to James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), about sharecroppers during the Depression. Yet Vollmann neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes poverty. While some reviewers described Poor People as eye-opening and visionary, others criticized it as a mere loosely structured travelogue. Some essays exhibit clear coaching of Vollman’s subjects, contradictions (is poverty political, or not?), and a lack of objectivity. Despite the book’s unevenness, reviewers uniformly praised "The Rider," a piece set in the Philippines. If you’re familiar with Vollmann’s previous work and style, his ruminations on his own ambiguous understanding of poverty are worth reading.