Eccentric, prolific National Book Award winner William Vollmann has been writing about Imperial County, California, for a decade. His obsession with this bizarre corner of America is chronicled in Imperial, an astounding thousand pages of land records, newspaper morgue finds, rafting trips down the nation’s most polluted waterway, history, interviews, artistic critique, and excursions into Los Angeles and Mexico. Together they form a devastating portrait of a region pumped up by boosters, plagued by contrast with its Southern neighbor, and haunted by the legacy of its desperate, foolish experiments with recalcitrant rivers. Vollmann has written a kind of American non-fiction Moby Dick, with himself as Ahab, not so much documenting as doggedly pursuing a quarry that only he perceives.
The Salton Sea, that irrigation mistake that filled a saline basin with now-useless brine, briefly rebranded as a landlocked Pleasure Island, hangs over Vollmann’s circuitous narrative the way its expanse lies poised on the map above the Mexican border, a bitter droplet about to fall. Water is the central concern of this massive book that defies outline or map—the water that 19th-century farmers were promised existed in such abundance that no question need ever be raised about its availability. WATER IS HERE, MOISTURE MEANS MILLIONS, and THE DESERT DISAPPEARS, run the words of just a few of the broadside slogans, Chamber of Commerce quotations, and dime-novel platitudes that Vollmann elevates to liturgical incantations. He repeats them in every possible context until they become abstract shapes, like the Mark Rothko paintings he overlays onto the Imperial County landscape.
Of course Imperial is about imperialism, the American expansion over the continent and resources it deems its own. In Vollmann’s pointillist method, that’s symbolized by the Gasden Purchase, the Chinese workers who spread into Mexico after being lured to California by jobs, and by his own book, the first paragraphs of which he rewrites over and over in various styles for evolving authorial purposes. But it’s also about the futility of that quest for dominion over natural resources, labor, and readers’ hearts and minds. In spite of the prim fury of American forces of decency, Prohibition never gets off the ground in Imperial County because of the abundance of legal liquor just across the border. The woman Vollmann loves, and with whom he first explores and photographs Imperial, leaves him heartbroken. What he terms “the entity called Imperial”—not a county with delineated borders, but an idea bounded by Los Angeles, Interstate 10, Baja, and the shockingly reduced Colorado River—blunders through identities like an economic powerhouse, farming mecca, tourist destination, and finally coyote and pollo (immigrant smuggler and immigrant) habitat without ever gaining control of its own destiny. In this brilliant book, the entity called William Vollmann records a similarly quixotic journey, also failing to find himself, but in the process illuminating everything around him.