Imperial

For the brave reader ready to tackle it, this sprawling text offers a fascinating glimpse of a corner of America at work.

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Warning: I know someone who curiously picked up William T. Vollmann’s hefty 1,300-page Imperial, took a minute to read a page at random, and then exhaled a whimper of incomprehension as he thunked it down in disbelief. Maybe it was the sheer weight (three pounds) that distressed, or maybe it was that random page, which probably contained a gonzo-conglomeration of bolded text, exclamation points, and 90-plus-word sentences.

That discouraged reader is a lifelong resident of the Imperial Valley – the centeral focus of Vollmann’s opus – and, by all rights, should have an interest. This is the only nonfiction work of note to focus on the overlooked region where California and Mexico blur together in a mutation of the  American dream. It is one of the nation’s most productive farming areas but suffers perpetual poverty and 20 percent-plus unemployment, as well as intractable environmental problems.

It’s too bad the book is so daunting. “Imperial” could be a fascinating primer on the way an important part of America works.

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Do you have any idea where the fresh vegetables you eat in January or February come from? You might be intrigued (or possibly revolted, depending on your politics) to know how Imperial’s asparagus or broccoli or lettuce landed on your plate. Are you one of the 10 percent of Americans who depend on the Colorado River for your drinking water? Here’s a peek at how your quality of life is tied up with the politics of Imperial. Do you hope for a more “green” America? Imperial is an abject lesson in the systemic hurdles to feeding the nation sustainably, locally, and equitably. (Man cannot survive on high-priced Whole Foods produce alone.)

But more broadly, “Imperial” has to do with the eternally provocative questions: Who should control Earth’s basic resources – water and land? And who really should decide?

As a native of what Vollmann calls a “sad, hot place,” I’m begrudgingly satisfied that he’s put Imperial on the literary map, even if his depiction of it is like a joint Michael Moore-Coen Brothers poke in the eye. Even if it feels from the start that he’s indicting all who ever made a dime – or lost a fortune – in Imperial, he does circle back hundreds of pages later to temper it all.

Even Jack Kerouac wasn’t enticed to leave his Greyhound bus when he passed through Imperial. But our intrepid Vollmann spent a decade of sweat returning to understand a place that most who visit it consider an unpleasant Interstate pitstop. (I admit, on my last trip there in October, the autumn air was redolent of feedlot and registered 110 degrees F.) He “gets” and articulates well the melancholy beauty of the place  – the “grapefruit” light of morning, the Matisse pastels of dusk.

Imperial is a swath of desert extending from both San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, to the Colorado River and dominated by an irrigated green center, the Imperial-Mexicali Valley. The valley blossomed from the imaginations – and finances – of turn-of-the-century land speculators and farming pioneers. Vollmann presents them as greedy; their contemporaries (and many invested there today) saw them as heroic. For sure, their hubris had to rival that of the Pharaohs of ancient irrigated civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt as they expropriated the lower Colorado River to feed a farming Eden in the desert. Their initial cut into the river not far above the Mexican border in 1905 was a monumental engineering disaster, exploding in a flood that wound its way north into an ancient seabed not far from the future Palm Springs. It created the 35-mile-long, 50-foot-deep Salton Sea before the breach could be stanched. That sea today, a gorgeous blue mirage from afar, is a slough often rimmed with dead fish and fed by the New River, a mire of sewage and agricultural and industrial runoff that flows out of Mexicali.

Along the way, this Eden has drawn intrepid souls (aka cheap labor) north from Mexico into a vortex of socioeconomic inequity. Their desperate migration patterns have made Imperial a graveyard for countless illegal immigrants lost in the white-hot desert.

Vollmann does a good job of explaining the counterintuitive farming economies of scale, how farmland falls increasingly into the hands of larger corporate interests better able to weather the ups and downs of the markets than the small farmer. Meanwhile, on the Mexican side, starved of the water by the Americans and governed by politics of a different kind, the farmland has largely remained in the ejido system of family farming.

The very thing that attracts cult followers to Vollmann’s many books of immersion in disasters of the human condition is what can repel others. A signature of his research is prostitutes – a lot of them – as well as much self-effacing personal experience. Authentic, but just too much information.
Water history has been covered more succinctly by Joan Didion and Kevin Starr, and Vollmann’s huge statistical information dumps can be tedious.

But he can also be hilarious and touching in his pursuit of detail. He puts a hidden camera in the ample bosom of his hired investigator, Perla, to get an inside look at maquiladoras and ends up finding nothing much but satisfied workers. He wanders through official corridors and back alleys of Mexicali trying – unsuccessfully – to find the source of the New River. He then precariously paddles the crumbling gorge of that foul river by rubber dinghy until his throat is sore from the fumes. He tests the waters of the Salton Sea – unquestionably polluted – and gets little but denial (including from a real estate agent standing on the desolate shore full of subdivided lots). And in one interesting and funny digression, he explores the underground tunnel network built by Mexicali’s Chinese community to beat the heat and the law.

In a perverted twist of the dream, and one that could turn the Imperial cornucopia into a modern dust bowl, many farmers have become “water farmers,” fallowing land and selling the water rights to thirsty urban areas. Why farm when you can sell water for more profit?

That question, alone, does raise some anxiety for the global future; the book will help you understand it, but certainly offers no solutions.

Clara Germani is a Monitor staff editor and a native of the Imperial Valley.

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