William T. Vollmann is a reclusive, eyebrowless (They were burned off in an accident at the North Pole) pistol-packing writer, and as such he is probably the last of a dying breed: The badass literary figure.
Prior to reading this feature in today's New York Times on Vollmann, who has a new book out this week, titled Imperial, that is 1300 pages long and retails for $55, we were not all that familiar with him. Sure, we'd heard of him, but we'd never read anything written by him or about him. He is now one of our personal heroes. Here are a few excerpts from the piece that illustrate why:
...while working on "Imperial," for which he also wore a spy camera while trying to infiltrate a Mexican factory, and paddled in an inflatable raft down the New River in California, a rancid trench that is probably the most polluted stream in America. The water, he writes, tasted like the Salk polio vaccine.
Mr. Vollmann spent two weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole, where he suffered frostbite and permanently burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire. But being eyebrowless has its advantages, he discovered more recently, while experimenting with cross-dressing to research a novel he's now writing about the transgendered. He didn't have to pluck his brows when getting made up.
Mr. Vollmann collects pistols and likes to shoot them. He has traveled to Thailand, Bosnia, Somalia, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, studying war and poverty, and has a way of picking up prostitutes just about wherever he goes. He has spent considerable time with skinheads, winos, crackheads and meth tweakers, and has ingested plenty of illegal substances himself.
"Crack," he said recently, "is a really great drug - it's like having three cups of coffee at once."