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William T. Vollmann is the author of ten novels, including Europe Central, which won the National Book Award. He has also written four collections of stories, including The Atlas, which won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a memoir, and six works of nonfiction, including Rising Up and Rising Down and Imperial, both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, Granta, and many other publications.
Continuing with the theme of oppression addressed in You Bright and Risen Angels and The Rainbow Stories , this first of seven projected novels on the exploitation of North America focuses on the Scandinavians. Freely augmenting and interpreting the sagas, Vollmann creates a past of treachery and bellicosity extending from 200 C.E. to the transoceanic adventures of Eirik the Red and his family at the turn of the millennium. Motivated alternately by an outlaw spirit and greed, the family moves west to Iceland, Greenland and eventually to Vinland (America). Once there, they proceed to cheat the native Skraelings while Freydis Eiriksdottir seeks to clothe the dulcet country in a frosty ``Ice-Shirt''--for no other reason than that she, like the rest of her kind, has an icy heart. (In the voluminous notes and glossaries appended to the novel, Vollman notes that the Micmac term jenuaq refers to the Northmen, people who have never thawed out because they don't drink enough blubber.) Despite felicitous writing throughout--from Cuppy-esque historical humor to a Nordic magic realism--one gets Vollmann's point early on, making the insistent implications of evil Northmen/noble Native a bit pat. One could only wish that the subtlety of language was matched by the subtlety of plot. (Oct.)
This hefty illustrated novel, the first installment of a seven-volume ``symbolic history'' of North America, is an imaginative retelling of the Norse discovery of Vinland, with the accent on ``imaginative.'' The scholarship is impeccable--the book is packed with glossaries, chronologies, and bibliographies--but Vollmann takes liberties with his sources in order to ``further a deeper sense of truth.'' For insight into shape-changing he interviews a couple of San Francisco transvestites; other informants include Inuit teens, Scandinavian backpackers, and alcoholics Vollmann meets on the bus. The technique has more in common with New Journalism than with history or fiction. Utterly different in subject matter from Vollmann's previous books-- You Bright and Risen Angels ( LJ 5/15/87) and The Rainbow Stories ( LJ 6/15/89)-- The Ice-Shirt nevertheless resembles them in scope and degree of difficulty. Highly recommended.-- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles