The Royal Family

by William T. Vollmann (Viking Press)

In his new novel, The Royal Family, William T. Vollmann has created a bible of the dark side, unseen in American literature since Nelson Algren's The Man With a Golden Arm. No one since Kerouac has rendered San Francisco's underground so vibrantly. This novel may be the masterpiece of possibly the finest young writer of a generation.

Henry Tyler is a lonely detective searching for a woman known as Queen of the Whores. Some say she doesn't exist, others cower at the mention of her name, but everybody has a lie to tell. For some, a story is all they have. Wading in this nasty pool, Tyler finds love, unfortunately, with his brother's wife, Irene. When she commits suicide he is left to wander without an anchor.

The bowel of the Tenderloin is not for the squeamish. "Can you give me a room without too much crack smoke?" Tyler asks, taking a room at the Rama Hotel. "Last time there was crack smoke coming in through the walls and I didn't get much sleep." The manager takes him upstairs where a door pops open, revealing "a man clothed only in tattoos of angry demons," who leans out and spits on the carpet. Tyler also notices "a naked old woman in the room straining to pull a dildo out of her ass."

These are the creatures that lurk within Vollmann's epic: nervous pedophiles, circling johns, and foul mouthed whores. "Listening to the heavy clip-clop of that glossy-shoed girl so sour-sweet with the sweat drops glistening from her meaty shoulders." Women with mental disorders, cocaine addictions, and various vaginal inflammations shine like movie stars in this gritty underworld. Vollmann finds dignity in lost souls by piecing together the shards of their dangerous lives and making them whole.

Unfortunately, this book costs $40, and I doubt many hipsters will be willing to drop that kind of cash for a novel. So hurry to the library and put your name on the list and/or wait for it to show up on the remainder shelves. Better to pick the book up remaindered than have it lost forever to a pulp mill. And somewhere down the line, a first edition just might be worth more than what you paid for it.