By William T. Vollmann
Viking/Penguin ($55, 1306 pp.)
For ten years wunderkind (although he is not so “kind” anymore) writer William T. Vollmann traversed the Imperial Valley border between Mexico and the United States. Interviewing, photographing, kayaking, whoring, and researching, he amassed enough background to pen his latest 1300 page, literal “blockbuster” non-fiction tome Imperial. It is his premise that the California side, virtually the Farmers Market of America, was largely built on the backs of immigrants and stolen water.
The fifty-year-old Vollmann has published some twenty books (including abridgments and compilations) ranging from a seven volume, 3000 page collection of “thoughts” on violence to another seven-book, “Seven Dreams” series of novels. He admits in interviews that he likes to work on several books at once, and today he has another three or four ready for publication in the next two years. The man is a writing machine.
But are these books any good? Some think so. He has won both a National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award, and even back in 1999 he was chosen one of the New Yorker’s top twenty writers under forty. Although his books are among those talked about but seldom read, and he lives somewhat reclusively (albeit with a wife and child), he does not suffer fools or editors well. Still, put a couple beers in front of him, and he must be quite the conversationalist. If Imperial is typical (and I must confess this is his only book I have read), his writing output would be tens of thousands of pages less if it weren’t for his ability to get every soldier, immigrant, hooker, and bum to open up and give him material.
Surprisingly, Vollmann speaks no Spanish; so when he is not sitting at a keyboard banging out one book or another, he travels the valley with various guides and interpreters. One of whom, Juan from Jalisco, “was a true addict. Every day I had to advance him his wages. By late afternoons he needed a bonus. I had found him amidst the slow round of beggars and drunks on a street two blocks south of the United States.” Another is Carlos, a “swarthy, big, tattooed, mustached, filthy, sweat-stinking” solo illegal who “had been creeping into America since 1982.”
On what Vollmann calls the “northside,” he has access to the workings of the US Border Patrol through Dan Murray who “was an older man, getting big in the waist, whose face had been hardened by knowledge into something legendary.” With these sidekicks and the hundreds of others whom he interviews, he builds his story.
Vollmann is not shy about his ambitious intentions. After all, California is the American dream – a dream created from our military conquest of Mexico out of a rough, arid valley turned into rich cropland by immigrant labor and ingenious irrigation engineering, in weather ranging from perfect to hellish hot. A couple of hundred pages into Imperial, he says it himself: “As I said, this book forms itself as it goes. Fields, cemeteries, newspapers and death certificates beguile and delay me; I don’t care that I’ll never finish anything…and I, who don’t belong here, was never anything but a word-haunted ghost. This is my life, and I love it. Books are whatever we want them to be. I am where I want to be, in Paradise. Let me now commence the history of Paradise.”
From this platform Vollmann erects his monument. He is always (and often annoyingly) present in the first person as he combs libraries, paddles polluted rivers, explores tunnels under Mexicali, and finds strippers to translate the many narcocorridos sung across Mexico. He leaves nothing out, and so we find facsimiles of land titles, photographs, song lyrics, billboards, city council meeting minutes, and anything else he scrapes together from his wanderings. He digs up the historical acreage yields of crops, prices of fruits and vegetables, water volumes diverted from the Colorado River before it crosses into Mexico, death statistics of illegal immigrants, per capita this and that. In support of all this, he includes 175 pages of footnotes, references, timelines, and interviewees by name and dates.
No wonder it takes him so long to make his point.
In the end Imperial is a political book and Vollmann has an axe to grind. Clearly the history of our border relationship with Mexico is one of mistakes and misdeeds…and so it continues today as our scrap metal wall marches east from the Pacific while people and goods continue to find ways to cross anyway – legal or not. Despite all that, millions of people have made whatever moves they have had to make in order to better themselves; and, Vollmann’s rhetoric notwithstanding, mountains of cantaloupes, asparagus, and onions truck all over the world from the Imperial Valley.