Social scientists have long sought to define and quantify poverty, but the concept has remained stubbornly amorphous. In Poor People, renowned author William Vollmann (winner of the 2005 National Book Award for his novel "Europe Central") investigates global poverty through a series of interviews with poor people he encounters around the world. Vollmann's compassionate and ruminative account asks crucial questions, but provides few definitive answers.
"For me," writes Vollmann, "poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is 'wretchedness.' It must then be an experience more than an economic state."
Poverty, notes Vollmann, is a relative matter dependent on local contexts of "normality." Some people Vollmann meets are resigned to their impoverished condition, viewing it as fate. In Bangkok a cleaning woman named Sunee (she makes $3.50 per day) with five children and a drinking problem tells Vollmann, "We believe in the Buddhist way. Some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life. What they gave gets returned in this life."
Other poor people rage against their condition, seeking to strike back at the rich. One impoverished Colombian tells Vollmann, "The rich take advantage of the poor, and the poor hate them. I hate them."
Vollmann learns about the violence, much of it motivated by class resentment, that has haunted Colombia, and describes the walled mansions built by the rich and the private security firms they hire to safeguard themselves and their children.
Some poor people are neither resigned nor outraged, but view themselves as defeated by circumstance. In Russia, Vollmann speaks with a 57-year-old man who believes he cannot work due to his role in cleaning up after the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl. The man blames the government and tells Vollmann that if he hadn't been sent to Chernobyl, "I would be able to have a decent job, enough money."
Often, Vollmann meets poor people who are filled with shame and self-blame. In Kyoto, Japan, he encounters two former "salarymen" who became unemployed after corporate restructuring. One man, nicknamed Little Mountain, explains that, "of course I want to [work], but because of age restrictions they don't accept me." To Vollmann, Little Mountain, seems "to be infected by numbness[.]" The other ex-salaryman, nicknamed Big Mountain, describes his situation as "utterly hopeless."
Throughout the book, Vollmann ruminates deeply on the manifold causes and consequences of poverty, and on what obligation individuals and nations have toward the poor. He considers the role of the United Nations, and the widely lauded idea of "more aid, better directed," but remains skeptical about slogans.
Still, he recommends hope, even if it's baseless: "I propose that false hopes are as good as true, provided that they cause no harm[.]"
The poor themselves, notes Vollmann, sometimes adapt by "diminishing consciousness" through alcohol, drugs, or false beliefs. Such is the case with some of the impoverished that Vollmann meets in the former Soviet Union, who tell him how much better their lives had been under the Stalinist system.
Vollmann also investigates the exploitation of the poor. In Japan, he fruitlessly seeks out "snakeheads," criminals who smuggle impoverished Chinese women into Japan and force them into prostitution. In Kazakhstan, he more successfully discovers how a large oil company ruins the environment and the health of a small town.
One impoverished Kazakh man asks Vollmann to tell the American people about the rampant exploitation of the Kazakh poor and the environment. "I know the Americans will do something," he tells Vollmann. (Vollmann, however, silently considers this man's faith in oil-hungry America "ludicrous.")
"Poor People" is deeply philosophical – Vollmann freely quotes Marx, Adam Smith, Aristotle, Thoreau, and more – yet it is also highly personal. The book concludes with a description of Vollmann''s own complex relationship with the poor. He lives in Sacramento near a shelter for the homeless, who often use his parking lot as a place to sleep or congregate. The author gives them food and offers them friendship, but at the end of the day he returns home and closes his door on them. Vollmann even admits to being afraid of tall, young black men, describing how a group of them once robbed him.
"Poor People" enlightens, posing important questions and putting a human face on the socioeconomic statistics. "This book is not 'practical,'" Vollmann admits. "It cannot tell anyone what to do, much less how to do it." Such humility seems like the first step toward wisdom.
• Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.