William T. Vollmann has been called one of the most important writers in North America, but is he important enough to foist a 3,352-page treatise on violence on the reading public? McSweeney’s thought so: last year its publishing arm issued Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down in a seven-volume boxed set that was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Now Ecco Press has boiled it down to a handy 734-page abridgment. A novelist, journalist, and gun nut, Vollmann has an affinity for the most fucked-up hot spots in the world. His first nonfiction book, An Afghanistan Picture Show (1992), was about his adventures with the mujahideen. In Bosnia he was a passenger in a jeep that hit a land mine, killing his two companions. Rising Up and Rising Down is a historical and philosophical inquiry into the justifications for such violence. Unfortunately, Vollmann’s look at what motivated Robespierre, Lenin, Montezuma, and John Brown reads like an ethics term paper composed by a Montana hermit. The author even admits to having a “shock of recognition” when he read the Unabomber’s essay: “His obsessions were mine: the poisonous nature of uncontrolled technology and the shrinking freedom of the individual.” But the journalistic passages that comprise the last third of the book are better, as his encounters with guerrillas in Thailand, snipers in Sarajevo, and gangsters in Kingston show how war coarsens the human psyche. Vollmann is the most reckless traveler in modern letters, so expect hair-raising stories about Colombia and other places you’ve never been and probably don’t want to go. a Fri 11/19, 6 PM, 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th, 773-684-1300.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Villiam T. Vollmann.