From the author of The Rainbow Stories, The Ice-Shirt, and Fathers and Crows comes this fever dream of a novel about an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, Jimmy, who devotes his government check and his waking hours to the search for a beautiful and majestic street whore, a woman who may or may not exist save in Jimmy's rambling dreams. Gloria's image seems distilled from memory and fantasy and the fragments of whatever Jimmy can buy from the other whores: their sex, their stories - all the unavailing dreams of love and salvation among the drinkers and addicts who haunt San Francisco's Tenderloin District.
This brief novel by the gifted Vollmann ( You Bright and Risen Angels ) finds Jimmy, a drifter in San Francisco's Tenderloin demimonde since his discharge from service in Vietnam in the late '60s, struggling with a feminine ideal given the name Gloria. In his mind, she assumes the identities of wife, ex-wife, virgin, whore, representing an abstracted need which Jimmy must fill. And so he vows, ``Starting now and for the rest of his life he was going to work at seeing Gloria and remembering her.'' His main means: engaging prostitutes (including transvestites) for sex and storytelling. Based on their tales of their lives, he cerebrally romances each into a more or less palpable vision of his beloved. Jimmy's possession of Gloria is realized by Chapter 28, yet it is also strongly implied that Gloria never existed. The concluding Chapter 29 (exuberant and vivid, it contains the finest writing in the book), however, blows this hypothesis away, as it does Jimmy. So coy and nondefinitive are the work's main parameters that the heart of the matter--erotic, moral, psychological--remains beyond our grasp; akin to a piano sonata with variations, the novel raises new and different expectations not altogether fulfilled. (Jan.)