Published: July 29, 2009
In 1904, engineers trying to bypass the Colorado River’s silt-clogged irrigation canals dug one ditch too many. When the river next surged, it burst its perforated banks and spilled waywardly for two years into a dry California lake bed.
By William T. Vollmann
Illustrated. 1,306 pp. Viking. $55
That mistake is now the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake. For a while it was a fortunate disaster — a waterskiers’ and fishermen’s mecca, a vacation spot more popular than Yosemite, and the pride of Imperial County.
But decay set in. At 220 feet below sea level, the lake is now a sump with no drain. Agricultural pesticides and industrial waste flow in, but nothing flows out. It grows sicker and saltier each year, ringed by abandoned marinas, rotting motels, dead birds and poor people who live with a pervasive stink and the stubborn hope that things will get better again. After decades of ambition and civic boosterism, with bumper crops of greed, stupidity and shortsightedness, Imperial is now the poorest county in California.
How and why Imperial went bad is the grand subject of William T. Vollmann’s monumental new book. “Imperial” took Vollmann, celebratedly prolific and unafraid of big themes, 10 years to report and write, his story 1,306 pages to tell.
This is genuine Vollmann territory — awful and desolate and misunderstood — set in his California backyard. Imperial, as he defines it, is not just one county in far southeast California, but an entity, “pinched and infinite,” that spills far beyond county lines, into neighboring valleys and over the Mexican border. To identify it, he subtracts from that part of the world whatever is fragrant, affluent and orderly.
“The new city of La Quinta just west of Coachella must be excluded,” Vollmann writes, “for its clean wide streets and gated communities require us to lump it in with Palm Desert, Palm Springs and other stigmata of Los Angeles.”
What’s left is dusty, hot and poor. It’s Mexicans on both sides of the border: illegal immigrants here and destitute farmers there. It’s the international bookend cities of Calexico and Mexicali. It’s corporate farms concocting chemically lush rectangles of melons and alfalfa. It’s Chinese immigrants digging secret tunnels in Mexicali and industrial sweatshops secretly sickening workers and the environment.
Vollmann set out to swallow and reconstitute the whole thing: Indians, Spaniards, white settlers, border crossers, ranchers, prostitutes, strippers. It all interests him — especially the prostitutes and strippers. He haunts streets and bars, talking to anyone who’ll talk back, paying if necessary. He puzzles over old photographs, deciphers maps, crunches data on crop yields and water flow. He wanders from library to strip club to farm, then back to strip club.
It is a staggering achievement, and I’m sure many readers will admire Vollmann’s desert monument without daring to enter it. Having gotten back from about 40 days and 40 nights there, I can tell you: Imperial is a vast, forbidding, monotonous, sprawling place, from which Vollmann has assembled a vast, forbidding, monotonous, sprawling book.
The problem isn’t the subject; it’s the author. Vollmann has traveled the globe examining conflict and poverty on a continental scale, leaving behind a mountain range of prose, including a seven-volume “treatise on violence” and “Europe Central,” a novel that won the National Book Award. But with “Imperial,” he tosses everything he finds into his great desert Dumpster, for chapter upon chapter, resisting explanation, graspable conclusions and comprehensible analysis. No stray fact is deemed unimportant, no metaphor unexhausted.
“Mexico is one of the most alien places on earth,” he writes. “Beneath that quick-smiling or watchful Catholicism lurks another far more elaborate hierarchicalism which in turn subdivides all supposed ‘Mexicans’ into myriads of local spiritualities whose half-secret survival through all the long torments of the Spanish conquest promises their own continuance in bright-colored globules of coherence irrelevant to, hence safe from, the scrutiny of American capitalists.”
Vollmann often seems less interested in explaining Imperial than in exposing himself — his erotic adventures and half-hearted investigations — stressing all the while that Imperial remains an ultimately unknowable place, as if to inoculate himself against accusations that he is wasting the reader’s time.
He is a dedicated connoisseur of the down-and-dirty, which may well give his book cult appeal but diminishes its usefulness as journalism. He devotes an entire chapter to his breakup with a girlfriend, offering up his agonies minute by minute, complete with footnotes.
He continually veers between offering too much information and not enough. For whatever reason, in a decade exploring “the continuum between Mexico and America,” he never mastered Spanish. He did have the sense to enlist an agricultural expert, Paul Foster, to supply detailed memos on regional farming. He quotes from them occasionally, and when he does, there appear — like ice-cold beers in the trackless desert of Vollmann’s prose — moments of clarity.
But Mexicans, Vollmann confesses more than once, remain a riddle to him: “Day after day I went there, hoping to invade their thoughts and steal their stories, but most refused to talk to me, eyeing me with a hatred as lushly soft as a smoke tree sweeping its hair against a sand dune.”
His inability to give us answers doesn’t stop him from taking us on the ride, as when he paddles a rubber boat down the New River, hoping for a different perspective on the water’s stench, risking infection and rash. Is the river actually contaminated? After an exhaustive chapter on samples, he tells us it’s hard to say. Vollmann admits he’s a lousy investigator and spends pages recounting his mishaps with a hidden camera. When he undertakes a frustrating public records search for an elusive 1900s rancher, we learn more than we care to about his target — and about all the wrong people he finds, too.
The drug trade, border crossings, Mexican folk music — you name it, he dutifully throws it in. But his doggedness becomes delight whenever the job sends him back to the Thirteen Negro, his favorite Mexicali strip joint: “This was my heaven,” he writes, “a fat blonde waiting on the inner, red-cushioned bench, the band Koely playing norteño music; and outside was hot and a dead dog had just begun to stink in the street, but the door had closed and the blond girl’s hair went dim, pulsing in accordance with the curtain of lights within the great wall mirror, and now the bloody red nipples of light begin to wink in the ceiling.”
It’s not that Vollmann ultimately fails to get his point across. A reader can’t spend that much time with him without absorbing the bigger picture — how the failed Imperial idea is the failed American idea: that water will flow anywhere we tell it to; that we can make the desert forever fruitful; that the West will inevitably become an Eden of family homesteads abounding with fruits, vegetables, grains and democratic self-reliance, rather than a corporate nightmare of worker exploitation, environmental havoc and unchecked sprawl.
But “upon Imperial’s blankness,” Vollmann writes, “which might as well be a light table, it becomes all too easy to project myself, which is a way of discovering nothing.”
He said it, not me.
Lawrence Downes is an editorial writer at The Times. From the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/books/review/Downes-t.html?pagewanted=all
VIDEO OF PUBLIC READING: http://fora.tv/2009/08/12/William_T_Vollmann_Imperial