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Take James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, throw in Tokyo prostitutes, Kazakh peasants, Chinese immigrant traffickers, and a heady brew of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and recreational drugs, and you begin to approach William Vollmann's Poor People.
Last year, Vollmann published Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3,300-page magnum opus that attempted to devise a moral calculus for when violence is justified. He's up to the same sort of obsessive reasoning here, albeit at much shorter length and in a more accessible style. Vollmann travels the world, posing an earnest question: "Why are some rich and others poor?" To his credit, he realizes that this is a potentially annoying inquiry. What do you say to a Buddhist who believes that his abject state is the result of sins in a past life? How do you even know he's "poor"?