“Then one day it came to him and he said well now if everything is upside down you can’t have what you love if you have to have what you can’t ever love if happy stories are sad then sad stories must be happy. That’s all there’s left to get: sad stories” (128).
William T. Vollmann writes big books. Doorstopper-big in size, nation-wide in scope. Whores for Gloria is slim at 138 pages (with 15 additional pages of notes) but only marginally less ambitious than his more well-known tomes (Europe Central, Rising Up and Rising Down, and last year’s Imperial, to name only a few). Whores examines the relationship between man and substance, man and (sex) client, and man and himself; his immutable past, hopeless, hazy present, and idealistically-imagined future.
The small novel follows Jimmy, an aging Vietnam veteran, who spends his disability check on alcohol and prostitutes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Like the best scenes from Steven Soderbergh’s film, The Girlfriend Experience, though, Jimmy often turns to the whores not for sex, but for their stories. From their stories, which range from wistful recollections of childhood innocence to, more often than not, hard-to-read accounts of violence, Jimmy constructs, in his mind*, a whore/wife named Gloria.
Acquiescing that Gloria is a figment, a construction of Jimmy’s imagination, the sense of purpose, and joy that Jimmy derives from the whores of the Tenderloin district becomes a metaphor for the relationship between text and reader. Why do we read, especially when the stories we read can be as grossly upsetting as those contained in Whores for Gloria? Because, Vollmann suggests, storytelling, and, therefore, story-receiving and processing, is a human’s most vital function. By setting his book in a seedy, whore-filled city district, Vollmann reminds the reader that its a function shared by all (whores and housewives alike), that we operate, as oral, everyday storytellers, on an even keel, and that every story matters. Concerning stories, we are dealers and junkies both, whores and johns.
There’s an inseparable tie between the self, and the stories we share with one another. At one point in the book, Jimmy asks a whore, Peggy, to tell him “some happy stories” (85). After Peggy tells a story about a client who had recently murdered someone down the street, Gloria’s voice speaks in Jimmy’s mind: “No Jimmy it’s OK, Gloria said, I didn’t drink that story, either. And I don’t even need many more stories because what I see and remember is already making me what I am” (93). From the stories of others, Jimmy finds serenity in his doomed, earthly existence, even if that serenity is the product of an imagined person (Gloria).
For much of the first half of Whores, I was mostly sickened by the subject matter and frustrated with the writing style. When Jimmy started asking the whores for their stories, though, I found much to appreciate about the book. The majority of the memories shared were unpleasant, but in (drunkenly) imagining them as memories of Gloria, Jimmy works as something like an alchemist, turning the whores’ trashy past into something worth dreaming about (“… Gloria said I don’t know it’s all stories and oh look here’s grandmother’s kaleidoscope now see how the pretty things keep getting changed into something else” (62)). Jimmy’s fantasies and dreams have the wish-fulfillment-effect of good, escapist fiction. For example, in imagining a picnic with Gloria, Jimmy idealizes a world where segregation (which was brought up by one of Tenderloin’s whores) never existed:
“… and Gloria said but you know hon I remember something sad about that trip too I remember how in Louisiana they had separate bathrooms for white and colored why honey you’ve gone pale did I say something to upset you? but Jimmy said you don’t remember that part correctly nothing bad like that happened I think you must have just read about it in the schoolbooks anyway not to change the subject how about putting your pretty hair in a ponytail for your man?” (90).
As far as characterizations go, I would describe Gloria as “The Perfect Whore,” since many of the stories that become her stories belong, truly, to the prostitutes who told them to Jimmy. But she is also, in Jimmy’s mind, a wife, perfect in that respect, also. Attempting to understand Gloria provides insight into the character of Jimmy, a man who has trouble accepting and seeing reality for what it is; imperfect, scary, dirty, crude, and violent.
I grew to liking Whores for Gloria, even if I did find much of the book to be uncomfortably masochistic (at one point, early in the book, Vollmann uses a Mussolini quote in a footnote to literally tie the action of sex to the dropping of an aerial torpedo). There was beauty to be found in both Jimmy’s idealized memories, and, sometimes, in the stories told by the whores.
The final 15 pages are notes on the actual Tenderloin district, with testimonials from real-life whores. In reading their brief accounts, you can find traces of inspiration that Vollmann drew from in creating his “fiction” (the book is labeled a “novel,” though the first page states, “All of the whore’s-tales herein… are real”). You get the impression that Vollmann could have continued writing about these whores for hundreds (thousands?) of pages more. Mercifully, he showed restraint, and, in doing so, produced a thin, messily-lovely introduction to his body of work.