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In 'Imperial' Vollmann Struggles to Understand the Salton Sea as He Would a Mark Rothko Painting

Here as in all his works, William T. Vollman sides with the poor and the marginalized, but he tries to remain fair to all he meets, even as he confesses his prejudice, or tolerance.


Publisher: Penguin
Length: 1,200 pages
Author: William T. Vollmann
Price: $35.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-10

This diligent author has returned to my attention, thanks in part to the Harper’s Magazine “My Life as a Terrorist” article published in September 2013. That essay documents his discovery of his FBI file from the mid-'90s through the next decade, with its informant’s claim that William T. Vollmann might match the profile of the Unabomber, and another that he might be an anthrax suspect. I had set the magazine aside in my to-read pile.

Two months later, I saw a New York Times piece on Vollmann’s cross-dressing as “Dolores”. Minutes before, I received an e-mail about my review of his 2005 National Book Award-winning novel, Europe Central. An hour prior I had been staring at my bookcase. I’d been meaning to pick up again at page 123 -- and this time, 20 years after I had bought a first edition of that book as soon as it was published, to finish -- his saga Fathers and Crows, about the Jesuit incursions into Canada during the 17th century; a recent trip through Québec had revived my interest. Culture clashes, progress and tradition, nature and exploitation, violence and endurance: these themes characterize Vollmann’s concerns.

Three reminders of Vollman (all before noon the same day) had caught my attention, too. First, I read the Harper’s article; Vollmann mentions his scrutiny by those he calls the “Unamericans”. The New Haven FBI, while hunting down Vollmann's supposedly anti-capitalist, pro-Iroquois sympathies had noted, perhaps ruefully, how Fathers and Crows was, as the author himself acknowledged, “his most difficult work”. Vollmann sympathizes. That was in the mid-'90s.

More Federal surveillance followed, via an informant he nicknames “Ratfink”. Crossing the Mexican border in 2002 and 2005, both times with women of Middle Eastern origins, Vollman and his companions were delayed by US agents for what appeared then inexplicable rationales. These perplexing scenarios appear, within the limited understanding Vollmann possessed before he received the 294 pages released to him under the Freedom of Information Act from his 785-page file under “review”, within his book reviewed here.

For, since the Unabomber’s apprehension and the post-9/11 anthrax scare, more of Vollmann’s “difficult works” have appeared, one of which, his latest large tome to date, came out in 2009. It’s a report from a region closer to my home than the wilds of French Canada. As his run-ins with the Feds demonstrate, issues of sovereignty and threat, terror and capitalism, continue to dominate not only his texts but his life. Roaming a harsh domain a few hours from Los Angeles, Vollmann had, in thorough and very dense, dogged style, spent a long time amassing information and experiences for another long book.

It’s an effort to pick up this weighty tome on Imperial County, in content and heft. Sections ramble as a massive compilation on purportedly a single subject. Similar criticisms were aimed at Moby-Dick. Vollmann digs deep in 1,100 pages (the paperback reprint excises some hardcover endnotes), annotated with dissertation-level documentation. This tribute to the overlooked Southeastern (rather than scrutinized Southern) California stands as a leviathan of fact and lore.

Vollmann brings his research and his passion to this idiosyncratic, erudite, restless investigation. The tone can be personal, with detours into his own breakup with his girlfriend, his past travels, or academic, with eye-glazing statistical accumulation. He passes Palm Springs to beyond the Mexican frontier, the glaring desert, lake basin, and mountains called Imperial, the “entity” beyond its square county borders. This block of the Golden State is rarely promoted. It’s known for irrigated croplands, a saline Salton Sea far below sea level, and outmanned attempts to shut the border. Vollmann spends the first decade of this century wandering, talking (often with an interpreter), and boating (up the polluted New River) its dessicated, wet, and barren corners.

At first sight it “unimpressed me as hot, flat, muted and dull”. He struggles to understand it as he does a Mark Rothko painting, rather than an Ansel Adams representational photo landscape. This dexterity typifies his eclectic, smart, and unpredictable approach.

The book opens with him accompanying a Border Patrolman in 1999, as Vollmann explains that “whether the laws which made them illegal from working on American soil were good or bad, and they were probably (so I suspected even then, and now I am sure) the latter,” the officer’s “mandate was to prevent illegal entry, a necessary labor in and of itself, because any country unable to control its borders cannot adequately enforce nor even define itself.” He sides, as in his sprawling fiction roaming time and space, and his prolific journalism from war zones and among prostitutes, with the poor and the marginalized, but he tries to remain fair to all he meets, even as he confesses his prejudice, or tolerance.

This patient attitude makes him an inviting companion. You’ll sign on for the long haul. In a place where summer heat may rise above 120 F, reality can brutalize. “Why be exposed to the searing eye in the sky? Whatever doesn’t hide gets half-bleached, half-effaced, like the lettering on the welcome-signs of those visionary cities around the Salton Sea. Is that convenience store closed? To find out, it’s necessary to press one’s nose against its dark-glazed windows. That’s why the everydayness of Imperial is a mystery.”

Gradually the narrative brings you from Spanish and pioneer days to a surprising origin for the county. In 1907, an accidental diversion of the Colorado River flooded the inland soil, far from the usual riparian shore. Channeled by this deluge into an ancient dry lake, the Salton Sea filled in. For a while it promised fishing and boating, marketed as such in the era of the Rat Pack and the Space Age. I can attest that around the sea, subdivided streets are named after the rockets and astronauts of the early NASA era.

Now that sea ebbs, emitting its stench from thousands of dead fish, as scavenger birds hover over its waters and its shore reveals millions of tiny fish bones, ground up by erosion. Here and there, decaying wharves provide an ironic commentary on what 50 years ago was marketed to such buyers as my father-in-law as lots near or on a then-sparkling desert sea. I recently visited the one my wife’s father bought decades before: it's a dirt square surrounded by others under a harsh horizon, but a few plots now feature modest, beige stucco homes matching the bleak terrain. Purchasers from Baja California apparently have taken advantage of cheap land and the drop in demand after the recession, despite the inhospitable weather and saline smells that dominate Salton City’s forlorn tracts much of the time.

After all, Mexicali looms not far away, south of the border with Calexico, both cities luring campesinos. Many immigrants to this region a century ago were Chinese. Vollmann searches Mexicali’s “Chinese” tunnels; an amazing subplot sustains for 70 pages a sampler of his investigation. As with his writing, he rejects editors. He crams all his research in. He recounts natives, missionaries and Mexican colonizers, agricultural syndicates and land-boom capitalists, white ranchers, and especially today’s migrant workers, legal and illegal crossers: both legions confront those guards from both nations who patrol the militarized border.

This panorama can overwhelm even a sympathetic reader. A chapter titled “Warning of Impending Aridity” emerges early on, as Vollmann heaps up data “about a hot sad place when my life was draining away and everything felt stale”. But what does it all add up to? He hesitates to accept that “Imperial remains unknowable,” yet he insists that “Imperial remains unknown.” He confesses, “my ignorance of Imperial has filled a long book.”

Yet, this volume records an invaluable compendium about Imperial County and its vicinity. Livelier at least than a hundred professorial monographs, a first-person perspective energizes much of this arrangement. Its story turns poignant: Vollmann tells of his break-up near Indio with his girlfriend, and how he sees the entity through her eyes as well as the now-lonely views he must carry with him alone, when he then returns to the scenes they once loved together. “It was because she took such pleasure in Imperial that I began to write this book. In my mind’s sad confusion after she was gone, I could not distinguish, much less define, any Imperial that did not include her.”

He sides with the underdog, the down and out. As in his other books, he journeys with what used to be called hoboes and what are still called whores. He praises American efficiency while he accepts his inherent expectation of privilege by way of his fair skin. However, his encounters with blacks, Indians, Indios, Chinese, Mexicans, and combinations thereof complicate facile delineations of equating complexion with status. These meetings, as his book’s structure incorporates them, follow discovery and precede subdivision. The frontier daunts every human who faces it. Vollmann submits to an easy metaphor despite its neatness: “I felt hollowed out, ready to cross the border from life to death, from the urgent color and filth of Mexicali to the museum called Calexico, whose regular sidewalks empty long before dark.”

Beauty endures on both sides, often in what has been abandoned or become enigmatic in an American (and increasingly Mexican) rush to profit, plow up or over, and obliterate. He favors recital of what he gleans from public records, newspapers, interviews, and photos. From the mundane comments of those in Imperial before him, he embeds a few sayings until they either numb you by this trope or convince you of their demotic inevitability, as even the fonts change and the italicized quotes hammer away at your attention span. His prose for long intervals prefers information to description, so when Vollmann depicts a scene, its sensations after so many melon production reports or cotton baron imbroglios may jolt you.

He scrambles around figures scratched into desert rocks centuries ago: “In a swirling rocky hole amidst the open golden shadows on the rock are pale red hoops, nested circles, waves, infinity signs, insectoid and humanoid figures scratched into the dark shiny rock, and perhaps it would be worth the effort of a lifetime to understand the female figure with golden vegetation lunging below her, sun gilding the top of her shadowed rock; from her, one clambers down past spirals and leaves, sun and white-pebbled pavement.” Far from factories and pollution, Vollmann rediscovers traces of Imperial’s past peoples.

This narrative moves fitfully. I wanted far more on topics and places that he skims over or never mentions. Nothing on the globally-known music festival that recently jams Coachella Polo Grounds. The “corrections industry”, as prisons loom to provide jobs and generate malls, gains all of two sentences. Soldiers on duty, dirt bikers, desert hikers, the Chocolate Mountains, and the sand dunes earn scant or no inclusion compared to the constant presence of the border, its chemical effluents and fearsome maquiladoras, and Baja California. Despite their formidable southern tug, I felt that Imperial’s survey could have covered more topography, and also could have ventured farther north within the county more often. Los Angeles sprawl grabs a starring role; this book needed more on Imperial’s bit players, from northern edges nearer Palm Springs, Indian casinos, and the transition zone between the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts.

Vollmann inserts a “Pleasure Map of Imperial County” from 1967 (much clearer than his own cocktail napkin-sized sketches of the region), full of tiny clip art figures. Its largest typeface warns of a “Naval Air-to-Ground Gunnery Range”. That’s never discussed, nor will you find any detail on Slab City and Glamis, which attract thousands of snowbirds and off-roaders each winter. The promises on the pleasure map for rockhounds hunting petrified palm or oyster beds or gold get little attention; the burgs of Niland and Calipatria and Westmorland languish. Salton City’s chapters appear shallow, while the ruins of Bombay Beach and its three-hundred holdouts deserved a chapter or two. After all, similarly misfit photographers, filmmakers, and artists have been attracted for decades now to the Salton Sea’s hardscrabble enclaves.

A few errors slipped in. In spite of attention to copy that inserts footnotes for interpolated words by the author into transcriptions, and [sic] after misspellings in documents, Vollmann adds his own typos, if relatively few over so long a manuscript. I found five places needing correction, and these were mainly due to my local knowledge; others with awareness of other areas may find more. Collis P. Huntington’s first name is given twice without the double letter. Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park studio would have been in Santa Monica, not Venice. Echo Park’s boundary with Silverlake gets crossed a few sentences too soon. Vollmann cites a source about a “ten mile” distance for a Spanish irrigation canal connecting Redlands with San Gabriel. This falls far short of the mileage between these two cities; perhaps the Asistencia San Bernardino near present-day Redlands was meant, for that supported faraway Mission San Gabriel? He also mixes up the Feather River closer to his home in Sacramento with whatever concrete channel (once the Santa Ana River, in fact) trickles into Corona’s exurbia at Prado Dam.

Inevitably perhaps, such minor distractions matter little given the life’s work that for many authors less prolific this compilation would be; Vollmann has amassed a massive book while preparing texts even longer over his 25 year career. He loves to accumulate data, but he also longs to make it matter. He connects his life, or lets us see fragments, as when he and his then-girlfriend are sequestered by Operation Gatekeeper. We never know why. (And until Vollmann looked at his FBI file, he did not, either.) This adds tension. He makes the border matter. After I read this, I found myself cutting grape bunches unable to shake what I had learned about those who stoop in the heat to grab this fruit to send on to me.

Vollmann’s works often bring him in, half-disguised in his fiction or in his journalism, as a participant-observer. Regarding his well-documented immersion among those who sell their bodies, some lament Vollmann’s bluntness when it comes to prostitution. There’s little in this book on the actual sex industry along the border. A pair of quotes that explicitly make metaphorical connections between the landscape and a streetwalker appeared almost demure, barely noticeable amidst this bulk. “Progress is the delicious Mexicali whore who’s just had a happy orgasm with her hand in your hair and your head between her legs; when it’s your turn, and the condom breaks.” Vollmann’s restraint heightens his sporadic applications of a bolder image within statistics, names, dates, and eagerly assertive typefaces.

That passage about progress goes on another sentence, within a chapter on the demise of the Inland Empire, once as fertile as Imperial, now a stretch of endless tract homes over streets named for demolished orchards. As one who grew up next to one of the last lemon groves in Los Angeles County, on its far-eastern border, I found this saga of the suburbanization of the Inland Empire painful to relive. As the beige stucco, red-tile tracts, and big-boxes now stretch nearly non-stop down the interstate past the casinos and resorts to Indio, it seems that in a few years, even the salty declivity will fill with housing.

This sprawl inches into the entity. Water rights loom in the next section, as Los Angeles and San Diego demand more of the Colorado River. America imports crops from Mexico, and that nation wants its water. Mexicali’s demographic boom dwarfs Imperial County, and rivals the growth in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. Artificial lakes in Las Vegas and a hundred golf courses in the resorts around Palm Springs remind Westerners of the odd tradeoffs between recreation and agriculture, residences and resources, in this arid, drought-ridden territory.

Few Americans not lured here by cotton or melons or migrant labor have come here to settle, south of the air-conditioned resorts. Vollmann visits Leonard Knight, a transplant and a local character who’s painted Salvation Mountain with bible slogans and bright images. Vollmann notes: “Up close, it became the world; a few steps away, it began to resolve itself into the puny production of a single human being. Nearly as foolish as my own attempt to express Imperial in a book”, but both attempts leave their mark. After some laconic, heartfelt, and passionate prose about the fate of this land that the Pleasure Map called “the West’s Favorite Sun and Air”, Vollmann muses again about water, population, immigration, and the relentless pressure to plow over thirsty fields under sea level, to send river water to suburban lawns.

Vollmann concludes after over 1,00 pages: “Nothing can touch this marriage of land and sky, of heat and salt, this hammer and anvil, this procreating couple whose only child is a plain which unlike a rainforest, an empire or a work of art can outlast anything the planet itself can, anything, even human beings even water or waterlessness; and if, God forbid, Imperial itself does someday get riddled with cities, its character will remain almost unaffected; it will go on and on, true to itself, long after such temporary superficialities as ‘the U.S.A’ and ‘Mexico’ have become as washed out as old neon signs in the searing daylight of Indio.” In spite of the size of this study, this chronicle does not begin to exhaust this flat entity; that remains a wonder.

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