Tales of worldy travels take ghostly turn

Among contemporary American authors, William T. Vollmann’s project is unique. There is simply no other writer on the map who purchased a Thai sex slave, tried to fight with mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan and almost died in the Arctic Circle. And that’s just for starters. Vollmann has traveled to war zones, pored over the U.S.-Mexico border and made a study of the world’s destitute. His mammoth curiosity encompasses questions of war, morality, economics, lifestyle, gender, aesthetics, art and music.

Vollmann’s 2005 novel Europe Central — an in-depth look at the moral dilemmas of Germans and Russians during World War II — received a National Book Award. In it, Vollmann tempered his often florid prose with the fire of historical fact, creating compelling portraits of figures such as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, artist Kathe Kollwitz and SS officer Kurt Gerstein.

In the nine years since, Vollmann has published a string of intriguing and sizable nonfiction books. It turns out that all the while he was also working on a collection of ghost stories, collected now in Last Stories and Other Stories. These stories were written as Vollmann traveled the world, and the locales and customs he encountered figure as settings: the Balkans, Italy, Mexico, South America, Japan. Backed by 20 pages of sources and notes, a preface and even a series of “supernatural axioms,” these stories are meant to function together as a single work of fiction.

Vollmann remains very much the assiduous researcher, packing this book with authentic details. Who else would be able to explain both the intricacies of a geisha’s dress and that “the Serbs praise the good fortune of the man who dies at Easter” because the angels are so merry at that time that it’s a snap to enter heaven? This range is the fruit of a lifetime’s worth of learning and a steadfast work ethic.

The problem with all this knowledge, though, is that in this book it’s clumsily deployed. For instance, in a story about a ghost that lives in World War I trenches, Vollmann writes, “A guru once advised me: Find what is it that never sleeps and never wakes, and whose pale reflection is our sense of ‘I.’ ” Readers might recognize this as one of the central riddles that motivated his study of Noh theater, Kissing the Mask. In that book, it was an entrancing query, but why he has chosen to insert it into this story and what light it sheds on the ghost he describes are unclear. Too many of Vollmann’s arcane details feel like the ramblings of a storyteller overly pleased with himself.

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Sadly, such writing is symptomatic of a self-indulgence on display throughout Last Stories. Vollmann is infamous for despising the editor’s red pen, and he was apparently given much prerogative with this book. The results are lengthy sentences with no clear purpose and tedious digressions. For instance, while discussing a broken marriage, do we really need to know that “as H.P. Lovecraft proved, it may well be better not to know the answers to questions of fatality and decay”? Or be lectured on how “most of us who claim to love a crying child are lying.”

These excesses slow down the tales and kill their tension. The 74-page Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich, for instance, opens with 12 pages of mostly irrelevant throat-clearing before its main character is even mentioned. June Eighteenth, about the last day before the execution of the would-be emperor of Mexico, Maximilian I, is a story ripe with potential, but the only incident that contains a modicum of insight into the Frenchman’s last night on Earth is the pity taken on him by a poor Mexican who sells him a few cigarettes.

Last Stories is also full of uninteresting stock characters. Virtually every male is a charming, ne'er-do-well rogue, every woman either a raven-haired seductress or a chaste beauty ripe for sexual education.

Vollmann has always been at his best when he is fascinated by a subculture or gripped by life-and-death dilemmas. This is what makes him such an outstanding journalist, and this is why he succeeded so magnificently with Europe Central.

Last Stories shows flashes of his estimable talent, but the bulk of this long book lacks the drive of historical imperative or an absorbing subject. Although Vollmann cheekily states that this will be his last book, that can’t possibly be true: It would not suit a writer of his talents to let this be his swan song.

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Scott Esposito reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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