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The Royal Family Paperback – August 1, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

By the standards of the street, Henry Tyler is a good man, kind to hookers and the homeless, skilled at avoiding fights. He'd be the first to admit that his job as a private investigator is unsavory, and he turns away many prospective clients by suggesting that they may not want to hate their spouses any more than they already do. The love of his life, to his regret, is his brother's sweet, conventional wife, Irene. Henry's brother John, in almost black-and-white contrast, is cold and professional, all his yearnings focused on becoming full partner in his law firm. He manages to distance himself emotionally from everything but his mother and the hand-painted Italian silk ties that signify success to him. Although not overly fond of his wife, he resents Henry's longing for her, which seems to typify everything sloppy and extravagant in his brother's nature, everything that marks him as a loser.

On this classic framework William Vollmann has hung a gargantuan novel, by turns satiric, philosophical, lyrical, and baroque. It is a song of San Francisco. Rarely has a city been explored so tenderly and ruthlessly, from the mansions of Pacific Heights to the flophouses of the Tenderloin. In one of his many loving set pieces, Vollmann sends Henry Tyler through the streets surrounding Union Square, where a Peruvian quartet is playing to some weary tourist ladies.

Their lives were passing, vacations trickling through the hourglass; moment by moment this warmish blue San Francisco day was being wasted. They sat beneath lush palm-trees, and distantly a trolley-car sounded its bell as he heard the ladies talking about grilled-cheese sandwiches; then he was past them and could not hear anymore.
Tyler spots a gray-haired man digging in a garbage can. Near him, "reflected palm-tendrils swerved and curved in the windows of Macy's, and skyscrapers' terraces swelled and bowed there as if in the throes of an immense explosion. The Peruvians' music, gentle and strangely liquid, seemed the appropriate solvent for this image of dissolution."

When Irene--pregnant and neglected--kills herself, John disappears into his work while Henry, in a quest that parallels the course of his grief, devotes himself to the Queen of the Whores, a dark saint who protects the lowest of the low. It makes all the difference that our Virgil for this journey to the underworld is this good-natured and observant man, whose physical appetites never overwhelm his sympathy for the addicted and exploited. Henry remains firmly on the side of good, even when the boundaries blur before his eyes. At times, the author invites identification with his big-hearted hero, as when he veers into an agitated, first-person essay on the judicial evil of bail. Beat-flavored, with touches of Rabelais, Céline, and, oddly, T.S. Eliot, The Royal Family is Vollmann's most ambitious work to date, and a noisy, compelling world in itself. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Ambitious in style, in range, and in sheer volume, Vollmann's massive new novel continues the controversial projects of Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories, in which the prolific author aims to create a detailed fictional map of a modern-day red-light district and of the people who try to live there. John Tyler is a successful San Francisco lawyer; his brother, Henry, is a dodgy private eye in love with John's Korean wife, Irene. When Irene commits suicide, the siblings' bitterness becomes apparent. A grieving Henry frequents the prostitutes of SF's notorious Tenderloin district; John edges towards marrying his mistress, Celia. A brutal businessman named Brady has hired Henry to track down the "Queen of Whores." Pedophile and police informant Dan Smooth finally leads Henry to the Queen, an African-American woman of indeterminate age and immense psychological insight. Rather than turn her over to Brady, Henry warns her about him. Gradually the Queen helps Henry shed his grief for Irene by leading him down the dark, dank staircase of sexual and social degradation. He learns about masochism, golden showers and other unusual practicesDand about love. But the Queen's command of her realm is imperiled: Brady wants to import her Tenderloin prostitutes for his Las Vegas sex emporium. Vollmann is after large-scale social chronicle; he includes characters from nearly every walk of life, and trains his attentions on processes not often seen by the faint of heart: cash flow, blood flow, phone sex, Biblical apocrypha (the Book of Nirgal) and the body odor of crackheads. But this hypperrealistic novelist also aims to present a metaphysics: the two brothers stand for two kinds of human being, the chosen and the outcast. As in all Vollmann's novels, the author's encylopedic ambition sometimes overwhelms the human scale; some supporting characters, though, do stay vivid. Vollmann avoids simply glamorizing the outcasts but remains, deep down, a Blakean romantic: prostitution is for him not only the universal indictment of the human race but also, paradoxically, the only paradise we can actually visit. 5-city author tour. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reissue edition (August 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014100200X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141002002
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,192,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By D. Mauer on September 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing William Vollmann read from this book at Skylight Books in LA last week. He read the chapter about Beatrice, a Mexican woman who becomes a prostitute and whose life goes from poverty to complete despair and madness as she becomes a prostitute and addict. It is not my favorite part of the book, but it was great to see Vollmann and hear him read.
Afterwards he answered all of our questions (Next book in the 7 Dreams is done; it will be out next year and is about Pocohantas. He has finished a 4000 page (!) non-fiction book on the justification of violence. and get this - his favorite book of recent times is called A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kis. The book is out of print, but if you have a good used store (or just a good store) you may find it. I'm fascinated by what Vollmann thinks is really good writing: He also mentioned the Japanese writers Mishima and Kawabata, and in Eastern European authors the 20th c.
What else? I think he also said he was working on a book about the small countries of Eastern Europe in and after World War II. It was great to meet him after the questions. He was genuinely interested in what other people were reading and seemed like the kind of guy I'd love to hang out with for a while and have a few drinks in a crummy bar while arguing about good authors. His favorite books of his own are The Rifles and Butterfly Stories. The underage prostitute he rescued in Asia several years ago while writing for SPIN is married and doing fine (she is now 16 or 17?)
Royal Family; Very large book. After 350 pages I'm losing my breath and it is not yet half over. There are some very fine characters who walk very fine lines; chief among them is Dan Smooth; a pedophile who works for the feds.
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Format: Paperback
The first fifty pages of "The Royal Family" reads like the opening of a Dashiell Hammett novel (the seedy ambience of "The Glass Key" specifically comes to mind). Henry Tyler, a down-and-out private investigator, has been hired by a shadowy patron to find the "Queen," the self-appointed sovereign who oversees and protects the street prostitutes who haunt the Tenderloin's crack hotels and dark alleys. Even the last line of the first "book" (of which there are 36) has the feel of a noir thriller. Tyler attempts to pick the lock leading into the parking garage where the Queen is rumored to be hiding: "The lock opened on the fifth bounce. He stepped into the opening light."

In spite of this nifty, almost melodramatic hook, Vollmann has something else in mind instead of yet another piece of detective fiction. In addition to Hammett, influences extend to other San Francisco-area writers, first to the gritty realism of Frank Norris (as Tyler, like Vandover and McTeague before him, plunges into the underworld, taking most readers where they've never dreamed of going) and then to the desolate vitalism of John Steinbeck (when Tyler flees the Bay Area and mingles with the train-hopping hobos of the Central Valley and beyond). Along the way, the prose invites comparisons to Hubert Selby, John Rechy, and--yes--Thomas Pynchon. And I'm not even sure to which American literary tradition one might assign the book's vaguely supernatural elements.

While Vollmann has a dedicated "cult" following (and, although this is my first sampling, I'm nearly ready to add my name to the registry), there are two things that will probably keep his novels from garnering the wider audience they deserve. The first is their length--and this is especially true with "The Royal Family.
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I've discovered after loaning this book to numerous people, that it will either be read in one dog-like gulp, or be forever shelved after the first 200 pages. Reading Vollmann is a bit like eating an hallucinogenic fungus, in that you have to keep it down for a while to get the full effect. Many don't have the stomach.

But should you succeed in getting it all into the bloodstream...boy. Hold on tight and don't bother screaming.

Knowledge can not be differentiated into GOOD and BAD. Vollmann's wisdom is derived from his ability to learn about EVERYTHING, and illustrated by his ability to cultivate beauty from horror in prose so rich and engaging and smothering one could drown in his words while madly laughing. I don't need to offer yet another description of what this book is about, as everyone knows it's about suicide on many levels, and drugs and whores and hopeless love with all its poisoned teeth. And if you can take it, you will be a wiser person for it. Just don't plan on being any happier.
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Format: Paperback
The Royal Family is Vollmann's sprawling, epic examination of life on the streets and the depths that it can drive people to. It could also be considered a study on addiction, drugs, death, love and family. The book looks at its subject matter with such clear, uncensored eyes that some readers will find it simply too offensive to read, this book is NOT for the faint of heart.
Henry Tyler is a private eye hired to find the Queen of the Whores, an almost mythical wanderer of the streets that the more law-abiding portion of San Fransisco consider a legend, if they even know of her existence at all. Through a series of events involving a suicide and many, many trips to various prostitutes, Henry discovers the Queen and is brought into her underground world of drugs and prostitution. The 'Inner Court' of the Queen is the focus of much of the book, we see the world through the eyes of Tyler as he descends further and further into the murky depths of the black underbelly of civilised society.
The characters are surprisingly sympathetic. 200 pages into the book, I was in love with all of the 'inner court' prostitutes, if only because they are shown with such an unflinching sense of humanity that it is impossible not too. Sure, these women sell their bodies for money - and, in plumbing the depths of prostitution, we understand just how much the word 'sell' is apt for what they do - but they still have their dreams and fears, hopes for the futures and regrets of the past. Many are hopeless, considering the physical gifts they have to offer as their only positive aspects, while others have wearily resigned themselves to a life they hate because it is all they know. Above them all stands the Queen, she is their protector, their nurturer, their mother.
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