A labor of seventeen years, Vollmann's first book of nonfiction since 1992's An Afghanistan Picture Show is a gravely urgent invitation to look back at the world's long, bloody path and find some threads of meaning, wisdom, and guidance to plot a moral course. From the street violence of prostitutes and junkies to the centuries-long battles between the Native Americans and European colonists,Vollmann's mesmerizing imagery and compelling logic is presented with authority born of astounding research and personal experience.
A strange book, then. It is rigorous, like Euclidean geometry, yet twisty, like a pretzel. ''An almost narcissistic didacticism'' seems a pretty fair assessment of Vollmann's rambling historical reflections on Cicero, John Brown and Leon Trotsky, among others. A massive apparatus of endnotes serves not just to document the essays but to link them up to one another. Two stout volumes of his magazine pieces record his experiences in theaters of war and other places where violence is always in the air. He has seen a friend killed; he has loitered in rough neighborhoods with people who use voodoo to keep the chaos at bay (or to try to make it work for them). Scott McLemee