Poor People

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Most of us couldn't hang with William T. Vollmann's approach to tourism. The man lingers in the poorest slums of the world's poorest nations until he's sampled that region's most devastating drugs, most exotic diseases, and, yes, its most downtrodden women-of-the-evening. He's courted much criticism in the past for his fascination with prostitutes — and, to be sure, prostitutes aplenty pop up in this meandering, intuitive rumination on global poverty — but credit Vollmann with striving to overcome well-intentioned liberal platitudes about the "other" and get down in the trenches, gleaning globs of hard-won wisdom from some of the world's unluckiest people: Chernobyl clean-up crewmen are just the tip of the iceberg. The very human warmth and equally human outrage at the core of it all is shattering — as is the outstanding quality of the writing. Give this guy a Nobel already.

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