A nerd in action: He looks like any computer-programming couch-potato. But William T Vollmann is America's most celebrated literary action man, whose brushes with danger are the raw material for millions of words of highly acclaimed journalism and fiction

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AROUND Sunday lunchtime a couple of months ago, the novelist and journalist William T Vollmann was in a car with two friends, dozing in the back seat, when they got lost in southern Bosnia and drove over a land-mine. His friends died quickly as the blast ripped up from under them. Vollmann was slightly further away from the explosion and, unlike them, wore a flak jacket; so he lived. He wasn't sure that he would do so for long.

'I heard the guys that did it laughing, and I waited for an hour for them to come and finish me off . . . I was hoping that in seven or eight hours, when it got dark, I could run away. Well, the soldiers came along. Their Kalashnikovs were down-pointed. I knew they were gonna see me pretty quickly, and I knew that the Yugoslavian admires a real macho type, so I just summoned up my Serbo-Croatian and told them 'Good afternoon' with a big smile. The Kalashnikovs all got erections. 'How many in the car?' they said.

' 'Two dead. One alive. One probably about to be dead,' I said. They kinda liked that. They said: 'Croatian?' I said: 'No. American.' They said: 'Aw, shit.' ' Vollmann laughs, loud and throaty, like the slab-featured Midwestern farm boy he resembles, and settles deeper into his plump candy-striped armchair. After a short spell with minor wounds in a UN hospital, he is back home in shady, heat-sleepy Sacramento, California, padding around in his socks, as if he had actually spent the last few months watching the war on television.

He is opening beers at noon, scratching the back of his head with his free hand, and letting his short, plain sentences sag with long country ahs, I-guesses, and y'knows. He is affable, and volunteers a tour of the house twice, then lets me snoop around while he has his picture taken, grudgingly. His house is big, tidy and quiet, blocking out the suburb around it with net curtains, climbing plants and pretty wooden walls.

He fetches photographs of his dead friends that he took minutes after the explosion. 'I don't wanna make a big deal out of this,' he says, flatly. 'Here's my friend who I've known for 20 years.' He points to a thin man in spectacles and a T-shirt bloodstained at the heart, lying neatly on rough Tarmac. 'I dragged him out of the car and put him there.' The photos are calmly composed, level and focused. 'It was just an average sort of war murder,' Vollmann says, lazy vowels still hiding any bitterness. 'I was lucky that I was in the back.' Then, his voice sharpening: 'But I wasn't lucky that I was wearing the vest, because it was my choice. They chose not to wear theirs.'

Vollmann, who is 34, does dangerous journalism for a living: war reporting for the BBC and the Los Angeles Times, tracking down Asia's big heroin boss for Spin and spending two weeks at an abandoned Arctic weather station for Esquire. Vollmann gives shiny magazines a frisson of danger, of vicarious risk - and he increasingly gets their attention in return: a big profile in the New York Times Magazine, another in GQ, recommendations in The Face. They make him sound as dashing and fearless as a Boy's Own character - except that he gets hurt sometimes: hit by shrapnel, numbed by frostbite, tortured with cigarettes.

'I tracked him down after the explosion,' says Bob Guccione Jr, publisher of Spin, in which the Bosnia story will appear, 'and said 'Come home.' He said: 'The story's not finished.' ' 'If something were to happen,' Vollmann had told the Washington Post a few weeks earlier, 'provided there wasn't lingering pain . . . it wouldn't be the end of the world.'

But Vollmann doesn't seem like a Hemingway, or even a Kate Adie. His eyes squint through thick oblong glasses from a chubby, scrappily shaved face, unflatteringly offset by a vicious crewcut. With a few spots, a backside as wide as his shoulders and an all-over indoor pudginess, he looks like a late-adolescent computer nerd. His shirt is vaguely khaki, but he hasn't buttoned it properly. It is hard to imagine him leaping from shellhole to shellhole.

He gets scared in dangerous places. ('The more scared you get, the longer you live,' he says.) He is not 'professional': he rarely speaks the local language, his eyesight prevents him from driving and he interviews by asking questions like 'What do you want America to do?' over and over again. He blunders his way to stories, relying on locals 'to play big brother', being 'continually embarrassed'. He once wrote a whole book, An Afghanistan Picture Show, about a year of failures trying to help the mujahedin, ending it with a letter from an Afghan general: 'You have the brain - but you are not physically fit and you have no money - hence forget about the Afghans. Get down to a serious profession.'

This gaucheness leaves him open to details and sensations - a rifle shot's 'sharp, low snapping of the air' - that regular correspondents miss. His strange battery of images can give his observations life: the explosion of a shell, for example, is 'a weighty, unpleasant sound of earth falling on earth, as if for a burial. . . fixing us in light for a forever second of terror, like some slice of tissue stained in eosin on the microscope slide of God.'

And he does have the physical endurance to collect the raw material for his similes. The mujahedin may have laughed at his soft hands and feet, but he marched with them for days through high desert, and he remembered that 'shade trees grew like miracles'. His forwardleaning gait, you realise, as he shuffles round the house, is that of someone who is always carrying a backpack.

His journalism tends to be long and complicated, like drafts for a heavily researched novel. And that's exactly what it is: 'I don't do anything for a magazine (or radio station) that I wouldn't be doing for a book.' Since 1987 he has published eight novels using material from his reporting. 'It's too easy to go on making things up,' he says. 'I want to experience . . . I want the things I write about to be real.'

This isn't an unusual idea - American creative writing schools have long flooded the market with would-be Raymond Carvers eager to chronicle grimy real life - except that Vollmann uses his reportage as a jumping-off point for the kind of post-modern literary trickery usually found in Umberto Eco. Authorial interventions, arcane digressions and slippery chronologies chop up and toss Vollmann's slabs of reportage into an exotic Californian salad. Critics find it delicious: USA Today calls him 'the reigning kid genius of American fiction'; the Washington Post thinks he's 'the most prodigiously talented and historically important American novelist under 35'; Time Out settles for 'dazzling'.

His new book, The Rifles, is typical. It weaves together the contemporary misadventures of a bumbling Vollmann-like narrator, variously called 'I', 'you', and 'Captain Subzero', among the abused Inuit of northern Canada with a part-fictional, part-historical account of the explorer Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt to discover the North-west Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific during the 1840s. It needs a lot of stylistic horsepower to make it move: constant time-shifts back and forth, sometimes in the same sentence, authorial explanations of what's going on, and a glossary that takes up a third of the book. Sentences run on, typefaces change, and only Vollmann's sparsely vivid illustrations provide breathing space.

Vollmann may have 'a brain the size of

Saskatchewan' (the Financial Times), but The Rifles can seem a cold book. Its subject, the cruelty and folly of explorers old and new, is

as bleak as the grey tundra across which the characters struggle. Yet light and warmth come from its language, particularly in the many long prose-poem passages of minutely observed natural beauty: 'The sea was emerald and the drift-ice bobbed in it and there were bubbles and tunnels in those floes, which were shaped like ships and rams' heads and camels, and they rode the waves in herds . . .' By

the end, the exotic images, verbal pyrotechnics and double story-line are all clicking together, and Vollmann is beginning to read less like a trendy professor's idea of the perfect novelist and more like someone you might tell your friends to read.

Moreover, for all Vollmann's pessimism and dodging between perspectives, a distinct moral voice emerges. The plight of the Inuit - forcibly relocated to barren Arctic settlements by the Canadian government in the 1950s, and ruined by guns and drugs since - dominates the final sections of The Rifles. Vollmann includes letters he wrote to the government, transcripts of parliamentary debates and the addresses of relevant officials and academics.

'I'm real interested in doing good things and helping people,' Vollmann says, still slumping in his chair but getting animated. 'Writing is a way of creating something beautiful, and maybe inspiring people to do good, but if you wanna make the world a better place you have to go out and do something.'

Last year he persuaded Spin to give him money to rescue a child prostitute from south Thailand and write about it. Blundering and creeping through a hot, squalid landscape of concrete-floored brothels, Vollmann snatched 'the saddest little girl I have ever seen' from the pimps and spirited her away to a women's education centre in Bangkok.

Of course, this raised a lot of questions. Was it just an exotic stunt? (Spin played it as one: 'Vollmann travels through jungles and dungeons . . . to set her free.') How could he choose one particular girl to rescue? And what about his ambivalent view of prostitutes? ('In my opinion many did like it,' he wrote.) Spin's letters pages fizzed with challenges and assents to Vollmann's conclusion that 'the right thing had been done'. Today the girl is still at the education centre, he says, and he and Guccione have put up some money to help pay.

Rescuing people, specifically innocent young women, is one theme (of many) blurring the line between Vollmann's fiction, his journalism and his activism. Last year he sent the narrator of his novel The Butterfly Stories on a frenzied search through Cambodia for a prostitute described in eerily similar, childlike terms to the one he rescued for Spin. He explains this fascination with his usual slightly detached directness, his eyes focused elsewhere, his expression blank: 'My little sister drowned. I felt guilty about it, and I always wanted to make up for it, and so I'm really interested in being of service to other people somehow . . .' His legs splay out, long and slack in front of him; his right arm stays thrown back behind his head; only a slight mumble betrays much emotion.

The story of his sister's drowning is well- known - he talks about it in interviews and has just written about it for Grand Street, a New York literary quarterly. ('He publishes everything,' says radio producer Noah Richler, for whom Vollman once wrote 10,000 words on Yugoslavia in a single weekend, 'and people will publish anything.') In 1968 his family were taking a break in New Hampshire from his father's job as a professor at Dartmouth College. The nine-year-old Vollmann was left in charge of his younger sister Julie, who was six, while she played in an apparently shallow pond. Lost in a book, he didn't notice her beginning to struggle - she couldn't swim - as its bottom suddenly dropped away beneath her. 'Brawny ropes of water captured you,' he writes in Under The Grass, his agonising nine-

page attempt to deal with her death. 'Until now I've scrubbed at the stain of your face on my brain's floor.'

He had nightmares about his 'executioneering' of Julie for years. But the guilt also drove him to write, 'brazed to ferocity year by year by the memory of your blue face . . . No matter how many young girls I saved I could never undo or appease . . . your ghost.'

Vollmann's writing is haunted by autobiography. He was not a happy child. Born in Los Angeles in 1959, he moved around the country with his father's teaching jobs. 'I didn't have a lot of friends,' he says, resigned. He started writing stories when he was six or seven. 'I didn't have much else to do with my time.' At high school he 'had a hard time getting a girlfriend . . . I was shy and ugly and tongue-tied.' (Now, he says, 'that stuff comes a little bit easier. I'm still ugly, but I can blab.' He laughs. Later, his pretty girlfriend of nine years rushes in and out from her job at the local hospital, and he introduces her proudly. He lives in Sacramento to fit in with her work.)

Vollmann escaped lonely suburbia for the desert. He won a scholarship to Deep Springs College, a tiny all-male academy that solicits applications from high school students whose IQs are in the top half-a-per-cent. Its 25 students are forbidden to leave during term-time, and must run the ranch as well as devising and studying their own curriculum under elected professors. Students say it's 'very demanding, very driven'. 'Deep Springs was a nice place,' says Vollmann with a big smile, his first of the day. 'You wanna eat, you gotta step in a little bit of pigshit . . . I enjoyed it a lot.' Sharon Schuman, who taught him writing there, remembers a gentle, talented loner: 'He was so unphysical. He lived inside his mind a lot. He was obviously driven to write and he had such unusual things on his mind that his writing wasn't like anyone else's. (It was) often sadistic, strange animals being dismembered . . . We tried to make his writing more normal.'

From Deep Springs he went to Cornell University, to study comparative literature. 'It was kind of a disgusting place,' he says. 'They taught people how to lead . . . They really didn't like me too much there. I guess I wasn't able to speak as eloquently as they could. Maybe my goals were a little bit different.'

He left in 1982 to fight with the mujahedin, leaving behind a 135-page Honours thesis, linking up Dante, De Man's deconstructionist literary theory, and some reporting he had done on anti-nuclear protesters. 'It was three times the required length,' says the dean, Walter Cohen, who was on the thesis committee. 'Not polished, but original, special. It was clear he wanted to be a writer and a witness.'

When he got back from dodging helicopter gunships in Afghanistan, college seemed limited and he dropped out of a graduate course 'reading other authors' at Berkeley: 'It was just experience that I wanted.' He took a job as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, but he couldn't drive and it was hours away from his new home in San Francisco by public transport, so he had to live in his tiny programmer's cubicle during the week. 'I'd bring my sleeping bag and as much food as I could, and I'd sleep under my desk, put a waste basket in front of my head so nobody could see me.'

'Dreaming in front of the computer', Vollmann could only work, or write. He started to concoct a novel from his imagination, his education and the strange electronic tedium of his job. You Bright And Risen Angels was an obsessive 650-page account of a war for world domination between 'revolutionary' insects and 'reactionary' electricity. It jumped around like sped-up Pynchon, as Vollmann let a quarter of a century of thinking and watching pour out in paragraph-free pages. Some of it was just intellectual throat-clearing; much, American publishers agreed, was incomprehensible; but it dazzled Esther Whitby at Andre Deutsch in London ('at once I knew it was astonishing'), and so Vollmann got a publisher and, on the book's publication in 1987, a widening ripple of excited reviews.

But he was already bored with You Bright And Risen Angels, which he called 'a kid's book'. While critics salivated over its 'electronic consciousness', he was writing about the skinheads, drunks and prostitutes that he saw on San Francisco's street corners at weekends, establishing his modus operandi as a passive, but all-seeing 'recording angel'. (He even showed the skinheads a draft of what he was writing, and included their critique - 'It should be cut, maybe to about half a page' - in the published version.)

The books that resulted - The Rainbow Stories (1989), Whores For Gloria (1991) - were an odd semi-fictional mixture of relentless, Charles Bukowski-style street brutality and lyrical epiphanies, usually inside the heads of the doomed characters. 'Maybe you're a drunk or a paedophile,' says Vollmann, 'but inside you there's still something really special.' He's not a relativist; he thinks that these 'marginal people' are better than everyone else, because they're honest about their social transactions.

Vollmann likes to be literal. To learn about prostitutes he slept and smoked crack with them, then listed all the relevant prices at the back of Whores For Gloria. His life is mostly just material for his books because, by his intimidatingly direct logic, that's the obvious thing to do. There's not much else: 'This year I've been home seven or eight days . . . This is really my girlfriend's house. I don't really know much about Sacramento.' He talks about his work in simple sentences, without reference to literary theory or other authors. He goes into more detail about where we should order hamburgers for lunch.

'He doesn't frighten you,' says Whitby, who has become a close friend. But, nice as he is - offering cold drinks for the road back, asking questions back that imply genuine interest - his gaze, made fiercer by his squint, focuses beyond you. 'You're dealing with a higher intelligence,' Richler says.

He reads ferociously: 'Anything I can learn from or anyone who can write a beautiful sentence.' He researches in libraries as well as brothels, mainly for Seven Dreams, a seven-volume 'symbolic history' of North America he's writing. (He has published volumes one and two; The Rifles is volume six.) He once read all 74 books of French explorers' reports on 17th-century Canada. His writing voice in Seven Dreams constantly switches from childlike wonder at nature to formal period speech, as if the idealistic Vollmann were fighting the erudite, streetwise Vollmann on the page.

The Vollmann fiction factory is a wide upstairs study: a fat, humming computer, a wall of books (William Burroughs, Elizabethan poetry, Eskimo history), a string of press cards and notebooks of large scrawl ready to be fed in, processed and published. Currently he's working (simultaneously) on a collection of prose poems, a book about an imaginary eastern European state, an essay about violence, a writer's guide and three more volumes of the Seven Dreams. Sometimes he types for 16 hours a day. He also illustrates his books, with ethereal prints and watercolours of his dirty characters.

Vollmann makes people suspicious, makes other writers and critics feel insecure. Some say his mass of work, with its web of internal cross-references and repeated themes (truth in extremity, the beauty of nature, human weakness) looks impressive from a distance, but up close is thrown together, over-written, wilfully difficult. Others think he's too good to be true: the New York Times got a letter claiming Vollmann was a hoax after it published a profile. What is clear is that he is still a cult writer, with a few critical champions, some obsessive fans (jailbirds and young girls, he says), much switching of publishers and relatively poor sales. His research can be expensive - his dangerous journalism has financial as well as artistic and philosophical motivations. And Sacramento's newspaper still spells his name wrong in its local literary round-ups.

Vollmann is disarmingly direct about his reputation, as he seems to be about everything: 'Most people I don't think actually read the books . . . They look at 'em, and maybe flick through 'em a little bit. They see lotsa words, maybe not too many paragraph indentations, and they figure they're good doorstops . . .' He seems so pleasantly open as to be impenetrable, as if he never stopped being an egoless 'recording angel', watching the world and creating his fat, visionary books, just because that's what he does.

But there are signs that his work affects him. He asks me not to use his girlfriend's name because 'she's gotten death threats'. And he bought a gun to protect himself when he was reporting for The Rainbow Stories. Now, up in his study a second time, he pulls out his squat black gun box to show me. 'I like guns a lot,' he says, cocking back a long and monstrous Desert Eagle pistol with the calibre of a heavy machine gun. 'I was thinking of putting a laser scope on it . . . It'd be great if somebody ever broke into the house. I could just stand there at the top of the stairs, and they'd see a little red dot on their chest. It'd be so nice . . .

Has he ever killed anyone?

'That'd be illegal, if I had, wouldn't it?' says Vollmann, his grin suddenly more creepy than endearing.

Then he starts recording again: 'How about you?'-