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'Why are you poor?'

Without condescension or glib judgment, Vollmann circles the globe to find the answer

In a Bangkok slum, the mother (right) and daughter of Sunee, an alcoholic woman Vollmann spent a few days interviewing. In a Bangkok slum, the mother (right) and daughter of Sunee, an alcoholic woman Vollmann spent a few days interviewing. ("POOR PEOPLE")

Poor People
By William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 314 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Down in New Orleans it's commonly said that Hurricane Katrina ripped the lid off of poverty, exposing the dark underbelly of the Old South tourist mecca. And so it did. Footage of families living in cardboard boxes, Alzheimer patients left to die in hovels, and looters smashing plate-glass windows left TV viewers numb with despair. Who were these poor folks? How did they survive in a world gone wrong? Why couldn't they prosper in the land of milk and honey?

With the exception of documentarian Spike Lee's award-winning "When the Levees Broke" (and Dissent magazine), these fundamental questions were never sufficiently answered by a media obsessed with showcasing ravaged storm victims without investigating the societal roots of their endemic impoverishment. Unfortunately this is par for the course. Regularly American cameras pan down on urban cesspools like Calcutta or Port-au-Prince, Haiti , capturing the pathos for a news segment and then moving on to sports scores and stock indexes. The net effect is that we see the destitute, we cringe at their dire circumstances, but we don't contemplate their inner lives.

Fortunately, the indomitable globetrotter William T. Vollmann, a recent winner of the National Book Award for his novel "Europe Central," has stepped into the breach. Building on a journalistic tradition made memorable by Jack London ("The People of the Abyss" ) and James Agee ("Let Us Now Praise Famous Men ") among others, Vollmann travels to Thailand, Mexico, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Japan (there are many more locales), fueled by a burning question: "Why are you poor?"

Avoiding bleeding-heart clap trap, Vollmann gets answers that are both varied and profound. Handing out money along the way, he encounters a bruised gallery of down-and-outers -- drunks, whores, floor cleaners, criminals, panhandlers, beggars, and toothless survivors -- all clawing away for a daily meal. With great finesse he enters their hardscrabble lives and procures a slightly better intellectual understanding of the flesh-and-blood reality of povertyland. "People who are poor but not in imminent danger of perishing," he writes, "have more of a chance of catching their breath and actually conceptualizing their poverty."

Take, for example, Sunee, an alcoholic Thai woman he befriends in Bangkok's Klong Toey slum, where arthritic women sell sugarcane juice in plastic bags and starving cats with mange roam the alleys . After spending a few days with Sunee, hearing nauseating tales of haunted corrugated shacks and methamphetamine highs, Vollmann offers a possible reason for her bleak circumstances: destiny. Void of emotion, he essentially says God made some folks rich and other folks poor. And that's just the way it is.

Although there is a unifying thread that runs through "Poor People," the book is essentially a loose series of travel essays, bolstered by Vollmann's own stark photographs. What makes Vollmann such an unusual writer, and something of a natural treasure, is his uncanny ability to mix anecdotes with cold, hard facts. 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. Rare among novelists-turned-nonfiction writers, Vollmann is always believable. "Poor People" is free of padding. The reader, however, does learn a great deal about cultural differences from studying the cause-and-effect of poverty. Roughly speaking, Yemenis (Muslim) don't claim poverty, for that would be showing gross ingratitude to Allah. Mexicans (Catholic) blame superrich capitalists for their bleary-eyed plight. As for Buddhists, they sadly embrace poverty as retribution for being "bad in a previous life."

The finest set piece in "Poor People" is a chapter titled "The Rider," and its setting is the Philippines. Not since Nelson Algren's "Never Come Morning" has somebody written about gambling (in this case on jai alai) with as much gritty realism and reportorial integrity. Tip sheets, street ushers, hope as dope, peso poverty, betting stubs, jungle maps, the bulldozer's wake, empty dark roads -- all these are weekly realities of a pock-marked sports hustler named Gary. Vollmann's achievement is to sketch Gary as a kind of Kerouackian angel, dignifying his manic steadiness and wise ways. Anybody who has ever traveled to Third World resorts has certainly encountered characters like Gary. Vollmann's loving portrait does his hyperkinetic, smiling-gofer type justice.

Be forewarned. This numbing treatise is not for the weak-stomached. Graphic descriptions of high blood pressure and radioactive skin exact a toll on the reader. You can feel poverty as a body rash, the prose causing you to scratch even though there is no itch. Call it fungal enlightenment. Only a masochistic -- which Vollmann is -- holidays in Chernobyl.

Ever since the publication of "You Bright and Risen Angels" in 1987 , Vollmann, a California native, has attracted a loyal cult following. None of his fans will be disappointed with this effort. As typical in a Vollmann book, it abounds with the stench of urine and heroic prostitutes . The main reason "Poor People" is worth reading, however, is that Vollmann is a facile writer who works hard. And, no, he doesn't need an editor to trim his books down to size. Sprawl does him just fine.

Late in this book Vollmann comes up with a truism, almost accidentally, about why he knows he's rich, in a circular, Gertrude Stein -like rumination. "I am sometimes afraid of poor people," he writes. "They are by no means the only people of whom I have been or can be afraid, nor am I often afraid of poor people; nonetheless, my fear of people whom I define as poor is part of what defines me as rich."

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Tulane University.