Features & Columns
Exclusive: National Book Award Winner William T. Vollmann Offers Sneak Peak of Upcoming Novel
I was at SFO about a year ago waiting for my flight to Salt Lake City to attend a journalism conference when a man shuffled into a seat across from me. At first I thought he was homeless or maybe a bit crazy because of his disheveled, rather greasy hair and the bulky, tactical-looking vest he was wearing. But then I recognized him. Holy shit. That's William T. Vollmann.
I quickly Googled him on my phone to confirm his identity. The wire-rim glasses and distinctive mole on his face matched the photos I was looking at.
"Are you William T. Vollmann?" I asked, stuttering a bit.
"Yes, I am."
Vollmann is a literary hero of mine. It was his outrageously ambitious and honest works of nonfiction that fueled my interest in journalism back when I was in my 20s and living in San Francisco. Ironic that I was heading off to a journalism conference when I should meet one of my first literary inspirations.
Vollmann proceeded to ask me where I was going and about my work. A journalism conference? What is your favorite story you wrote, he asked.
That led to a discussion of mushrooms, Cambodia and radioactive contamination, at which point he pulled out a yellow Geiger counter he was carrying in his backpack. He was headed to West Virginia to research fracking for a book he's working on about carbon and climate change. The device was part of his research. How'd you get the Geiger counter past security, I asked.
"They don't even know what it is," he smiled.
Before we parted, I asked if he'd be interested in writing for the Bohemian. He immediately said yes, provided the assignment was "fun." Vollmann doesn't use email or a cell phone, so we began corresponding and talking on the phone about possible stories. Is there some kind of lesbian commune or maybe a marijuana encampment in the North Bay, he asked. Probably, but I don't think I could grant you access. After spending a night drinking beer and painting a nude model he had at his studio in a razor-wire-surrounded building in Sacramento, we settled on a story about Redding.
He's writing a novel about the black sheep of a famous political family who goes underground to escape his past. It was fascinating for me to see how he blends fact with fiction. I hope you like the story. —Stett Holbrook
A few years after deciding to write a novel about a young man named Matthew who sets out to see America, I met Mr. Stett Holbrook of The Bohemian (Editor's note: The North Bay Bohemian is a sister paper of Metro), with whom I contracted to deliver what we officially agreed would be a short piece about something or other. The only stipulation was that whatever I turned in show some relation to The Bohemian's area of readership. Since I live in Sacramento, I settled on Redding, which was not only a fairly straight shot north, but also virtually unknown to me. In Sacramento, which can get plenty hot, some people smugly console themselves that at least we often get the famous Delta breeze, while poor Redding, etcetera, etcetera. The only information I had on Redding was from my local newspaper, which, as newspapers will, retailed accounts of drug busts and violent crimes. Thinking to follow up along those lines, I telephoned a Redding private eye, who, unlike all the others of his kind whom I have hired over the years, was gruff, suspicious and sullenly unhelpful. None of the other P.I.s returned my calls. I set out expecting to find a sweltering, downtrodden place. In fact, Redding was cool and green just then, and its inhabitants turned out to be some of the nicest people I have ever met.
The following draft is one iteration away from my original notes. All the conversations in it come nearly or entirely verbatim from actual interviews. The novel will be called A Table for Fortune. I hope to finish it in about 2018. I thank The Bohemian for the opportunity, and my friend Greg, who was my driver and companion on the trip; the avocado stories come from him. And I thank the people of Redding.—WTV
An Excerpt from the Upcoming Novel, 'A Table For Fortune'
At this time the young man named Matthew discovered a certain kind of sunshine unlike Sacramento's, which to say fiercer and more withering, one of time's best weapons for degrading newsprint yellowish-orange and wrinkling people before their time; once upon a certain August which measured somewhere below far and gone in his ephemeral existence he had been hitchhiking south from Susanville and was set down in Redding where he waited five midday-girdling hours at an on-ramp whose dusty blackberry brambles were actually dripping with melted black sun-made jellies; but in the strange cool May of this current year as he hitchhiked north toward Redding the sunshine had shifted to an opposite otherness from Sacramento's, being somehow greener in its goldenness and more wild, as if the mountains were tinting it. The truth is that Matthew had sought sublethal sunshine in which to hide from his father, expecting most Reddingtonians to be lurking indoors in the fashion of Mohave, Calexico and Mexicali; he too would lurk, while perfecting his disappearance. On triple-digit days in Sacramento, the hardiest of the homeless trundle into thickets and culverts; those who remain sit stupefied, with heads hanging down, or else lie on the sidewalk, while flies crawl slowly over their faces. Richer souls shelter behind drawn curtain, listening to their air conditioners; and I for my part believe that the city to be sustained by invisible armies of sweating, hollow-eyed air conditioner men. The sun clangs in everyone's ears; even police veterans can get deafened. . .
So it should have been in Redding, but this wild green sunshine changed everything. And by "green" I do not mean what you might think this color should convey; it had nothing to do with the restful or menacing green glooms of Oregon. Venus flytraps and emeralds were as far away from it as palm fronds. Yes, it was green, but not exactly. It refreshed Matthew because there was nothing of him in it. No one in Redding would put a spoke in his wheel. The complementary consideration was nobody would help him, but as long as the green sunshine kept on, what could he need from this world?
In his boyhood he must have seen something that made him want to go way out into America, to find out what our country was, but whether he had been enticed by the best golden loneliness or hounded by the loneliness that lives in our homes and gnaws misunderstood children, or perhaps heard something about faraway hills in a bedtime story, whatever had provoked the wish was lost. He himself was not lost, except to his parents, who troubled over him with loving bewilderment; nor did he feel in want of anything; thus as I begin writing this I myself cannot tell you what he was going to find on what Thomas Wolfe called the last voyage, the longest, the best—in other words, the only voyage, the one toward the grave. And so, hitching a ride, Matthew left behind all the other times of his life.
As they rolled north into Colusa, with the Sutter Buttes' dusty blue knuckles over and behind the olive orchards, the driver was saying: You know, I grew up on a citrus farm in southern California. I picked avocados for another farmer all summer, but we used a manlift. I think avocado trees get forty to sixty feet at least. We'd have about four big bags in the cage. One flatbed truck with four bins of avocados in it, it took us all day to pick that! That gave me a real sense of accomplishment...
Right away, Matthew, who believed that anything he did could be undone, or done better, because it lay in his power to live any number of lives, began contemplating hiring on in an avocado orchard. First he'd grow sunburned, and then confident. Women might possibly love him.
The driver was saying: One year when prices spiked we were getting fifty cents an avocado wholesale. Wholesale!. . . —by which time Mount Shasta was glowing double-nippled against the milky clouds.
And the driver said: The boss was a real good Christian guy who'd been in the Marine Corps, and he had a mental breakdown, had to take some time off. We were unloading avocados from a manlift when the hydraulic brakes failed. The thing picked up speed, crashed into a tree. He was super understanding when we visited him in the mental hospital—
Just then they came into Red Bluff: red rock, long yellow grass, cool clouds. Green sunshine sped into their eyes, intoxicating their hearts. They were almost in Redding. Matthew kept grinning at the driver without knowing why. Beaming back at him, the driver said: A big tree can make more than a hundred avocados but all at different times; it takes six years to grow an avocado; I'm talking about the Haas kind, which is what I know. . .
Redding offered half a dozen exits. The driver let him off in the old downtown, not far from City Hall.—I sure appreciate it, said Matthew, and they shook hands. He lifted his backpack. Opening the passenger door, he still expected to be sunblasted in his forehead, wrists and ears, breasting an upsurge of reflected sidewalk heat which would come dryly into his lungs. But Redding was like that. He looked back at the driver, who waved, then pulled away, bound for Eugene.
There stood Matthew in Redding, wondering what to do. First he felt anxious; then he began to get excited. His plan was to have no plan. He crossed the street and began walking in the most pleasing direction, saying to himself: I do not know where I am going. I do not know where I am going.—And he exulted in this. If not even he knew this, how could anyone ever find him?
Within ten minutes he arrived at a bar whose midafternoon quietude compelled him through the window, so he walked straight in, and the tattooed barmaid raised her beautiful face like a sunflower following light. The counter shone clean and empty. He seated himself beside the only other customer, an old hospital engineer who had just seen a bald eagle carrying a trout in its mouth. The engineer smiled at him, then said: This area is loaded with historical stuff and beautiful visual stuff. All the clouds go up and the sun goes down and you get the best sunsets.
Accordingly, Matthew decided to watch the sunset.—It is true that his impressionability sometimes made him foolish. But his foolishness might have been no worse than the way that old people so often visit a new place in order to project their brilliant pasts upon its mediocre indifference. He was drawn to the engineer because neither of them were afflicted with the chronic disease called irony.
The engineer told him: It's been a hardscrabble life. See, my Dad came up here; he was a Ford mechanic; you had to love nature to come here. So this basically was the turnaround for the railroad. This was as far north as it went. You wanted to go north from here... Before Shasta Dam was built, you used to have to come here by boat. This is five hundred and twenty-eight feet.
Wiry and aware, he exemplified strength in age. His name was Jacob. The tendons were corded on the backs of his workman's hands. Matthew supposed that they were becoming friends. He asked: Where would you go if you wanted to see America?
The old man said: I've been to Montana; I've built factories in the Midwest, but I've never been to the Deep South...
And right away Matthew could imagine himself in the Deep South! There he would discover what to live for. Jacob already knew how to live his life, but that knowledge must be good only for him. Matthew must find his own way; that was why he had come to Redding.
Matthew's beer was cold and clean. When he finished it, Jacob set his down and said: I think that this election'll be fought out on television. Here's why there's delegates: Here's my good friend who has money. But I live way up in French Gulch and can't afford to get down here. But then it gets corrupted. Like all this campaigning in this state, winner take all, and the popular vote gets set aside. But I still think we live in the greatest country on earth.
And Matthew believed. Looking right in front of him, he could see how wonderful America was! Why shouldn't it be the greatest? And he was out in it now; he would go farther and farther...
Laying a cell phone on the bar, the old engineer activated its screen and showed off a photograph of his daughter, who was a smiling, freckled brunette of about twenty-five.—She's hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Jacob said. She loves snow camping. She's hardcore. She and her boyfriend, they'll go out more than thirty miles in the hills by themselves.
Matthew imagined being with Jacob's daughter, or with any woman who would lead him into the mountains. He could not picture this angel very well; her hair altered from brown to blonde and back again. But she was holding his hand. And she knew the country—or, better yet, she didn't, and they would explore it together. The more beer he drank, the more joyous he felt. One day he too might be happy and old, with his pockets full of eagle-stories and a mountain or two in his backyard! Or else he would die in some woman's arms.
And now the tattooed barmaid began to confide in him, saying: I told her, look, we need to get out of here. He shares custody with his ex... —Matthew felt lucky and grateful that she trusted him. Tenderly she set another beer before him; he had told her to pick our her favorite kind. —Once you get through altitude sickness you'll be fine, the engineer explained. But you have to want to. You know what's cool when you get up there? You can see the curvature of the earth. That makes you feel you've done something.
Matthew made up his mind to go high enough in life that he could see the earth curving down before him. He wondered if it were too late for him to become an astronaut.
Jacob was saying: We went for eleven days through the mountains. First we prepared. We buried whiskey caches, and we had fun, drinkin' beer, cookin' trout. . .
Matthew bought him another beer, and Jacob said: If I'd've known you'd be comin', I'd've made a whole bunch of smoked albacore.
Will you be here tomorrow?
I'll come back then.
They fixed a time, and Matthew rushed out into the green sunlight to have more adventures. After the cool dimness of the bar, Redding enlarged itself all the more. He could see to the mountains. Here was Shasta County Superior Court on Yuba and West; and he stopped in the middle of the empty street, feeling as if he had found someplace where it would always be early on a summer morning. There was Placer and then Tehama; and right here stood Matthew, looking around him in hopes of learning where in America he should go.