Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THIRTEEN STORIES AND THIRTEEN EPITAPHS has the earmarks of a collection of juvenilia rescued from the bottom drawer because the author is becoming famous. Vollmann has been hailed as a genius whose books “tower over the work of his contemporaries by virtue of their enormous range, huge ambition, stylistic daring, wide learning, audacious innovation, and sardonic wit”; he has been compared with such prolific and poetic fiction-writers as Thomas Wolfe. Vollman is best known as the author of two imaginative historical novels about the colonization of North America. These lengthy volumes are only part of a projected seven-volume series with the omnibus title of SEVEN DREAMS: A BOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPES.

The thirteen short stories gathered in this collection deal with the adventures of young men trying to find themselves and succeeding in losing themselves in drugs, alcohol, free sex, vagabondage, and unripe philosophizing. Like Thomas Wolfe, Vollmann tends to overwrite; but unlike Wolfe he does not have a Maxwell Perkins to guide him through his own lush verbiage. The stories are annoyingly subjective, private, cryptic, zany, or pointless, even though the author’s verbal skills are always conspicuous.

In an author’s note, Vollmann states the questionable proposition that “A good story is only a hearse to carry you to the ending where the epitaph awaits.” The quixotic little “epitaphs” that follow each of the stories do nothing to clarify them; they only demonstrate the author’s ingenuous delight in mystification.

THIRTEEN STORIES AND THIRTEEN EPITAPHS will undoubtedly interest Vollmann’s admirers but irritate old-fashioned readers who expect writers to communicate.