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The Rainbow Stories

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  904 Ratings  ·  82 Reviews
From a writer who has won comparison with Thomas Pynchon and William S. Burroughs comes thirteen unnerving and often breathtaking stories populated by punks and angels, skinheads and religious assassins, streetwalkers and fetishists--people who live outside the law and and the clear light of the every day. Set in landscapes as diverse as ancient Babylon, India, and the sea ...more
Paperback, 542 pages
Published July 1st 1992 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1989)
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Ian "Marvin" Graye
Breakfast with Dolores

There were half a dozen benches on the rise overlooking the pond near where some of the Wrecking Crew were still sleeping after a party last night. The police hadn't done their rounds yet.

On one seat was an elegantly-dressed man somewhere in his mid to late 40's. He was reading the morning paper intently. I didn't sit there. Two seats away was an attractive girl, early to mid-20's, I'd say. She, too, was dressed well. I sat a few spaces away from her on the same bench.

Nick Craske
Jun 14, 2012 Nick Craske rated it it was amazing
This was the most stupefyingly brilliant kick in the head. The kind of volt and jolt which leaves a concrete and metallic aftertaste. Lazy psuedo-book-jacket-writer-mathematician-me says 'Bukowski + Foster Wallace ÷ Garcia Marquez x Pynchon = William T. Vollmann'. I've discovered my new favourite place to hang out. It's the world as scribed by this compulsive, obsessive and distinctive writer. Headbendingly good - I was seeing colours.

The Rainbow Stories are so much more than a collection of sho
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
The Rainbow Stories is a Rainbow Coalition of our societal remains, our tramps, homeless, drunks, prostitutes, skinheads, residents of morgues, terrorists and lab technicians, immigrants, Hebrews in fiery furnaces, and industrial artists. I am tempted to read Rainbow Stories as a novel because it looks like a novel, and I want it to be a novel. Perhaps it could be done. It is no mere collection, but an assemblage of related thematic and experiential material. We should not be misled into thinkin ...more
Feb 18, 2010 Jimmy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Approaching The Rainbow Stories as a piece of fiction is complicated. Mr. Vollmann was living in San Francisco at the time, and in various interviews he has spoken of the considerable portion of time that he spent hanging out in the city’s infamous Tenderloin District. Subsequent pieces of fiction such as Whores for Gloria and The Royal Family were not only set in the same downtrodden part of town, but these works were more or less directly based on interviews and conversation that Vollmann had ...more
MJ Nicholls
Loved the street-smart reportage-cum-fiction parts—a blast of surprising grit, candour and pulsing realism all too rare in this navelgazing era. ‘The White Knights’ and ‘Ladies and Red Lights’ is rich in powerful, electrifying vignettes as Vollmann restricts his prose to a splendidly unshowy, detached and oddly empathetic voice. Unfortunately, what follows failed to provoke any reaction from me other than befuddlement and boredom—one cod-Talmudic story, written in a zanily biblical style, and on ...more
Aug 15, 2007 Oriana rated it really liked it
Vollmann is so endlessly fascinating. This is probably my favorite of his books I've read because it's so raw and real and harsh and gritty, unlike the one where there's a race of bug-people in the sewers, and it's punchy and succinct, unlike the ones that traipse and meander on for hundreds and thousands of pages. This is definitely not for the faint of heart, with stories about hookers and junkies dying in hospitals and skinheads fucking shit up (just for starters), but it's this super-intense ...more
Jan 10, 2011 Hadrian rated it it was amazing
Excellent stories about the underbelly of society. Vollmann is still developing, after the utterly bizarre "You Bright and Risen Angels", and this is his first 'realist' work. Very impressive, though.

(Update:) I was rereading a section of these today. The 'blue' story has perhaps the most loving and tender description of an autopsy I have ever read.
in which our hero is…
blown by a prostitute; eats ‘shrooms; muses about WWII; hangs out with skinheads; shows a serial killer’s duality; witnesses Beelzebub buy a stiletto and covet his CD collection (!); speaks phonetic Korean; reimagines The Book of Daniel; lives amongst the homeless; escapes the Thugs of the Tenderloin and Ancient Arabia alike; becomes the Holy Ghost; and much, much more!

[“Reader, do
Mark Sacha
In which William Vollmann empathizes with skinheads and is deeply unsettled by guys who build and battle robots. The group philosophy, which I abhor, of the San Francisco skins he profiles seems very incidental to their fundamental lostness and outsiderness, as if the relationship between white supremacy and their angry embittered lives was a matter of proximity. This is not an attempt to justify them; Vollmann himself expresses relief at their essential powerlessness. We see reviled people here ...more
Mar 28, 2014 David rated it really liked it
There's a tissue and pulse, a taught tendon and a sturdy construction of bone and muscle that connects the thirteen works in Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories. One immediately thinks that a collection of short stories and novellas is merely that, a collection, but what Vollmann has created here can also be considered a novel of ideas, in as much as a novel can be a collection of similar ideas and notions. Characters reemerge two hundred pages later. Locations, streets and neighborhoods and motives, ...more
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
Kalifornia is druggy druggy druggy druggy,
David M
Aug 15, 2015 David M rated it it was amazing
"The little vanities of those whom the human race has excreted are so sinister because we know by them that there must be consciousness in those skulls." - from the Blue Yonder


Rainbow Stories is the best portrait I've yet encountered of my adopted city. It makes me want to get to know my neighbors better. Mr. Vollmann is a great writer, a ferocious humanist.
Jul 18, 2008 Austen rated it it was ok
It's clear that Vollman is extremely intellectual. His mind seems capable of capturing, coming to terms with, and recombining a staggeringly encyclopedic amount of information in whatever way suits the thrust of his writing, moment-to-moment. In this book he follows the daily lives (quite often the more tedious and mundane moments, which are peppered with the disturbingly violent or shocking or grotesque) of people who inhabit the seedy underbelly of San Francisco. We read about the homeless pop ...more
Dec 07, 2009 Adam rated it liked it
Shelves: 1970-present, prose
"The White Knights" and "Ladies and Red Lights" are excellent pieces of work. The former might be one of my favourite things that can be categorized as a 'short story.' This book is best when it's about the 80s Tenderloin and Haight Street and, well, San Francisco and the people who populate its less sanitized areas. It's less effective when the subject is more distant from Vollmann. To try to do what he's trying to do in these stories across centuries of lost time, with characters that feel lik ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
It's not just me. And it's not just me plagiarizing Moore. But listen to the world and it will tell you something interesting has been going on in American Letters these past few decades. I know the Germans have only recently been catching up with a menge of brick=translations. Just that we American readers prefer not to recognize it.

Spanish small press publisher I met recently is doing it all right! Pálido Fuego (yes, from Nabokov!) ::
Jul 07, 2013 AC marked it as i-get-the-picture
Find this boring... not particularly gritty or shocking or even authentic... The artifice kinda dulls the authenticity, anyway...
Dec 28, 2016 RB rated it it was amazing
Shelves: on-hold
A masterpiece, review to come.
Aug 09, 2010 Will rated it liked it
As my first foray into a book that largely plays with creative nonfiction, I'm still uncertain of how I really feel about The Rainbow Stories. As a genre I find it interesting because it approaches the line between objectivity and subjectivity, allowing the writer to really explore the more intimate emotional state tethered to experiences. That said, I like the ideas at work but not so much the execution.

I feel as though Vollmann writes with the fervor of a friend telling you about a vivid dream
Apr 05, 2007 Bradley rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Urban Predators
Vollmann is a genius. His books are getting expensive. Buy as many as you can before it's too late...Hookers, skinheads, hospitals, all are given sympathetic realism here. "An understudy of the underbelly," that's what I say about Mr. Vollmann. You can quote me on that. If you use it, you better quote me or I'll sue your ass and buy more Vollmann books.
Sep 10, 2012 Geoff marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
So I didn't realize Vollmann was so, um, committed to his research:
Aug 09, 2012 Jeff rated it it was amazing
On page 147, Vollmann describes how contemporaries might respond to the protagonist of “Scintillant Orange”: “Others, of course, would be delighted to close the case of Meshach differently, formulating judgments more learned and less forgiving than those of YAWEH.” In an oppositional fashion, this characterizes Vollmann’s rhetorical seat: he writes to formulate judgments more learned and more forgiving. He’s an encyclopedia of book and street smarts, a veritable overflowing cauldron of effervesc ...more
Feb 04, 2012 Greg rated it really liked it
What a great and unusual collection of stories. The writing here is generally not as hard to follow as it was in You Bright and Risen Angels, and much of the style and ideas that come to more of a polished shine in later works are evident here, and it's fun to witness after having read some of Vollmann's later work. My favorite stories here were The Blue Yonder, Scintillant Orange, and The White Knights. Most of the rest were engaging and never failed to be completely original for me as far as e ...more
Oct 29, 2014 George rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015-read
I do not often read short stories, something I need to work on in the future, but this set of stories was terrific. There was so much feeling put into each one of the stories, I suppose because so much was learned by Vollmann to write them. I enjoyed some more than others, as I'm sure some of my favorites would not be others. I loved "The Blue Yonder", it was such a descent into madness, and it had some beautiful writing in it, especially the autopsy that was conducted. I would probably recommen ...more
Kye Alfred Hillig
Sep 23, 2010 Kye Alfred Hillig rated it it was amazing
This was a lovely visit to Vollmann's earlier approach to writing. This sort of shotgun take on an interesting and complex issue: Race. But not only race, also social class and he pulls it together with his brilliant organization. What may at first seem puzzling and complex slowly begins to reveal itself as a well-woven tapestry of thought. As always with Vollmann's work, there's an element of meta woven in with his fiction. I have a feeling that the majority of what happens in this book actuall ...more
Jul 12, 2008 Richard rated it it was amazing
There is a description of an autopsy in one of these stories which is so sadly beautiful that I am moved to tears every time I read it. And I have often been described by those who know me as callous.
May 10, 2017 Reuben rated it liked it
A frustratingly topsy-turvy collection of short stories. It starts as a sort of Louis Theroux' Weird Weekends, but where the host gets even more involved in the grimy subcultures he seeks to document--there's no cutesy British out-of-his-depths-ness about it here, our narrator isn't above paying for sex with prostitutes to better understand their trade. And this is brilliant, I really thoroughly enjoyed this. It's clever, witty, poignant at times and above all else, interesting (it reminds me of ...more
Donald Quist
Aug 26, 2011 Donald Quist rated it liked it
While reading The Rainbow Stories I was reminded of another author celebrated for how their writing crosses cultural boarders, Anis Shivani and his short story collection Anatolia and Other Stories. In both books, the author succeeds in capturing the human condition without having to filter the narrative through their own experience and there are definite similarities in the approach and scope. And yet, in an article for the Huffington Post entitled, “15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writ ...more
Apr 11, 2008 Ero rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: meltmaster
Recommended to Ero by: some guy at a stoop sale in Red Hook
This is a pretty amazing over-the-top exercise in stylistic blowout, that would be awful if it weren't so good.

Vollman does this thing where imaginative dreamstates overrun the narrative, without disrupting it entirely, and his sentence structure becomes sort of self-parodying at times (ala Faulkner or Hemingway or Burroughs, though only the last seems like a good comparison), but the prose is just beautiful enough to make it work. He's not afraid to gush and overflow, but just when you think i
May 26, 2012 Konrad rated it really liked it
Using skinheads and whores, drunks and tramps, and plenty of off-kilter faces from the Old testament and San Francisco as fodder, The Rainbow Stories spins all sorts of wonderful in the light and the shadows of American dark mythology. Vollmann, the journalist in many of these stories, proves to never let his narrative decay into judgement when dealing with the dirt of his characters (even if it becomes as intimate as receiving an limpid expert blow job from a prostitute.) This distance allows t ...more
Eric Phetteplace
Jan 24, 2009 Eric Phetteplace rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: San Franciscans
Shelves: prose
Vollmann writes like someone who loves writing, repeatedly getting carried away. His sentences build an impossible amount of momentum such that you hardly notice they've run on for pages & the metaphors match, often becoming comically overwrought. All in all, Rainbow Stories was thoroughly entertaining if a bit unbalanced. The stories range from stark realism to ridiculous fantasy & often are at their most successful when they're mixing both, as in the "scintillant orange" chapter (by fa ...more
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William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.

More about William T. Vollmann...

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