Well, this is it. Others on this forum have noted that Vollmann can be an acquired taste and it can take some time before something with his writing clicks. And, after a couple of whirls around with some other books by him, I finally found one that worked for me (though I would not recommend this to beginners of Vollmann either, due to the subject matter).
It’s an odd book. It presents itself as a novel in short stories, but that really doesn’t sum it up. Of the 8 short stories, 2 make up 200 of the book’s 280 pages, and, other than the first two stories, the “stories” are more chapters, they form something that more resembles a novel than a short story collection by any definition of the word. As for the first 2, they do set up the personality of the main character, but I felt the links between them and the rest of the stories were reaching at best.
As a whole, this is the story of the “butterfly boy/man”, first as a kid, then as a journalist who whores his way across Thailand and Cambodia and falls in love there. The later stories or chapters focus on the aftermath this has on his life back in America. It can get pretty graphic. Vollmann is not one to skip over a sex scene, but unlike writers like Updike or Roth it never comes across as self-indulgent; I recently saw the film Boogie Nights, about the porn industry, which has been described as one of the least sexy movies ever because of how it presents the subject matter, and it’s the same here. And despite all the whores, Vollmann is not one I could suspect of harboring misogynist views (at least from the books I’ve read), whereas Updike and Roth have faced such criticism.
Vollmann here can be a bit self-indulgent, but compared to his other books, this is pretty pared down for him. The prose still sometimes rambling, but it never gets in the way of the story, and at 280 pages there’s no room for info dumps.
It’s not perfect, but the biggest problems in my opinion get resolved relatively quickly. If the crudeness doesn’t bother you, try it; if you’re thinking Vollmann’s not your thing, give it a read before you throw in the towel. At 280 it’s one of the shortest books out by Vollmann, and, unlike some of his other short stuff (Whores for Gloria, the travelogue about his trip to post-tsunami Japan) this one doesn’t feel half-assed. I’m going to sniff out a copy of Europe Central or The Ice-Shirt next.