National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann’s essay “Homeless in Sacramento” in the March edition of Harper’s (subscription required to view; we recommend visiting your public library for hard copy) isn’t your usual statistic-heavy speculation on a long-standing problem. As is his practice, Vollmann plunges into his subject, going out to talk, eat and sleep with the homeless. Doing so, he presents a vision of reality that isn’t clouded by ideology, prejudice or ignorance.
Vollmann, who won the National Book Award in 2005 for his sprawling novel Europe Central is a prodigious writer who plunges deeply into his subjects. He’s written a seven-volume treatise on violence — Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts On Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means (Ecco Press has issued a single-volume edition) as well as a book-length reflection on hopping freights, Riding Toward Everywhere.
His 2007 look at world-wide poverty, Poor People, marks him as one of the most clear-sighted social commentators writing today. The premises of the book is simple. He visits people living on the edges of society in Thailand, in Columbia, in Russia, in Afghanistan, in Kenya, the U.S.A. and elsewhere and asks them, “Do you think you’re poor?” The answers, coupled with his experiences following his subjects about, spur the kinds of thinking not usually associated with questions of poverty.
The Harper’s article does the same. Where do the homeless sleep? Where do they defecate and pee? Where do they have sex? Who are the people that help them and who are the people who want them on their way? The article starts out with Vollmann allowing a homeless encampment to spring up on a parking lot he owns and goes on to see him spending time sleeping, eating, talking and moving on with his subjects.
The things that make Vollmann’s writing stand out — his attention to detail, his emphasis on personal experience, his lack of judgment — make all of his non-fiction work worth reading. A bit eclectic himself (he’s freely admitted his attraction to prostitutes and shared drugs with some of his Poor People subjects), Vollmann tries to shrink the distance between himself and his subjects even as he acknowledges his separation and differences. Most importantly, his compassion for his subjects, including those who resist having the homeless around, makes his work extremely non-judgmental. Few of us could experience the situations he has immersed himself in and not come away despising one group or another. Above all, Vollmann’s subject, in all his non-fiction, is freedom:
I sometimes seek to categorize whatever freedom it is these people have that I do not, a freedom that I also do not want.I don’t know whether they wanted to work and couldn’t, or chose not to work, or needed or expected anything. For their part, the only need most of them expressed to me was this: a place from which nobody would move them.
The human component is so often obscured in our discussions of the homeless. Vollmann’s article makes it the focus. —Cabbage Rabbit