A Lesbian Who’s Not a Lesbian Walks Into a Bar, and …

By William T. Vollmann

Across three decades and two dozen volumes of immersive fiction and nonfiction, William T. Vollmann has traversed landscapes of impossible beauty and extreme degradation, returning to produce exhaustive works on war, poverty, disasters, despots, immigrants, activists, sadists, scientists, martyrs, con artists, artist-artists and prostitutes — many, many prostitutes.

His latest novel, “The Lucky Star,” is part of a “transgender trilogy” that includes “The Book of Dolores,” from 2013 — a collection of words and photographs about Vollmann’s cross-dressing that its publisher categorizes as “Art/Documentary/Freaky Deaky” — and the yet-to-be-published novel “How You Are.” But “The Lucky Star” is also of a piece with “Whores for Gloria,” “The Rainbow Stories” and “The Royal Family,” earlier fictions informed by the author’s firsthand experiences, interviews and close counsel with cops, doctors, barkeeps, performers, clergymen and prostitutes — many, many prostitutes.

The book’s one-line synopsis might go: A lesbian who’s not a lesbian walks into a bar, and heaven and hell break loose. More specifically, the lesbian who’s not a lesbian — she picked up the appellation in high school, converting an insult into an identity — walks into a bar and instantly becomes the object of obsession to a clutch of characters, most of whom desire her, some of whom scorn her, all of whom cannot stop blabbering about her. Through their voices, Vollmann gives a documentary accounting of life on the margins, riffing on such themes as bigotry, idolatry, gender fluidity, vulnerability, consent, resilience and love.

His characters dwell mostly in the dive bars and low-rent hotel rooms of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Among them are Judy, née Frank (after Judy Garland, née Frances Gumm), a “sloppy, fat,” masochistic trans woman who turns tricks and dreams of “feminine success, which she would have defined as lustful attention”; Judy’s regular “date,” a sadistic, cynical retired policeman fond of spanking, spewing insults and telling war stories; a flinty barkeep who dispenses mind-altering substances that stoke, inflame and sustain her needy patrons; and a participant-narrator who offers play-by-play commentary and discursive observations on the drama — so much drama! — committed by all.

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