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Imperial

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

By / November 19, 2009



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.

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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.

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.

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