In the borderland

A vast, arid, haunted region between Mexico and the ‘dark soul of American imperialism’

Jose Lopez paddling along the heavily polluted New River, which runs north from Mexico into the United States. Jose Lopez paddling along the heavily polluted New River, which runs north from Mexico into the United States. (From The Book)
By James Green
August 9, 2009

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“Imperial’’ appears to be a book about people and places in the California-Mexico borderland, but it might be best described as a bunch of books and a raft of notes, arranged in a way only the author could explain, though he doesn’t. Why would readers want to pay $55 to plough through a dense, weirdly organized volume of more than 1,000 pages that is almost too big to handle, let alone read?

One reason might be to see what a phenomenal writer like William T. Vollmann is up to on the Mexican border. He has won the National Book Award for his novel “Europe Central’’ - real and fictional stories of Russians and Germans struggling under repression during World War II - and, at age 50, has already written more than 20 books. His magazine articles, we are told by his agency, have achieved “cult status . . . for embracing taboo subjects in highly dangerous situations’’ such as “running with the Afghan mujahideen against Soviet invaders.’’ Vollmann is a writer who demands our attention, and our patience.

Another reason to read “Imperial’’ is to take a journey to a part of the world that we need to see and try to understand at a time when more Mexicans are dying in our deserts, drowning in our rivers, and suffocating in our box cars. It is a time when more Americans than ever are patrolling the border with Mexico either as US agents or vigilantes.

Vollmann’s takes us to the borderland to show us what he learned during the 10 years he delved into the vast region he calls Imperial. Its domain stretches west from the Colorado River and the Arizona border to San Diego and Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast, from Indio in the Coachella Valley in the north through the Salton Sea down the Rio Nuevo, over the Mexican border and south into Baja California. Its heart is California’s Imperial County, a desert moonscape until 1901 when the Imperial Canal opened and irrigation made the region the nation’s fruit basket, an inland empire of produce and profit.

The publisher of “Imperial’’ tells us that Vollmann takes us “deep into the heart of this haunted region, and by extension into the dark soul of American imperialism.’’ He does take us to some haunted precincts, for example, in a marvelous and mysterious 100-page search for the secret tunnels that Chinese immigrants dug under the city of Mexicali to escape harassment from the natives or to avoid the heat, or perhaps to crawl into the United States. And he does produce the kind of brutal facts about American imperialism that a Marxist-Leninist would provide, though he shrinks from drawing explicit moral and political conclusions.

Indeed, Vollmann objects to generic anti-Americanism and finds less of it in Mexico than he expected. “Northsider, born and bred, I actually do love my country,’’ he proclaims, “or at least the country it wishes and occasionally tries to be. . . . I decline to claim that Mexico is ‘better.’ ’’

Vollmann seems puzzled, at first, when he talks to Mexicans who say they prefer to live in Mexico, where life is more “tranquillo.’’ A woman working in a “diabolically hot kitchen’’ on a 100-degree day tells Vollmann she will stay in Mexicali because in the United States people are not free. You work all day and “live like robots,’’ she tells him.

Vollmann also speaks to others, the migrants who risk their lives to cross through a border zone the author describes as a landscape of death littered with the bodies of unknown “illegal aliens.’’ Why do they come, the author asks? “It’s a sad life,’’ a migrant grape picker tells him. She bakes in the Coachella Valley sun all day and freezes at night in a desert barracks. “It’s miserable,’’ she says, and sometimes “you even feel like crying. . . . But once we get paid, it changes!’’

Vollmann has done prodigious research to explore the geography and history of this area. He cites dozens of episodes and vignettes from various moments in the past, and places them in 208 chapters, without the benefit of chronology - a choice that may drive lovers of traditional narrative crazy.

The pieces in Vollmann’s jigsaw puzzle called “Imperial’’ are generally familiar stories about the western homesteaders fighting over water, about the profits to be made on citrus fruits and lettuce here, about “East of Eden,’’ about the Mexican Revolution and Zapata, about the Okies and their troubles, about the Bracero Program and Cesar Chavez, about the maquilladoras and narco corridos (the prohibited ballads about drug dealers), about the pollos and the coyotes whom immigrants pay to take them across the border. There is not much new here, except for the stunningly authentic voices the author records and then artfully features in italics. We hear from, among others, a coyote, a Border Patrol agent, two grape pickers, a grower with “cantalope anxieties,’’ and a man named Steve Leung, a third-generation ethnic Chinese from Mexicali whose birth certificate reads “Estaban Leon.’’

Beyond this, what is unique and fascinating about “Imperial’’ is seeing how a gifted writer like Vollmann paints his own impressionist picture of this vast landscape with the kind of attention to signage, newspaper headlines and posters that John Dos Passos displayed in his U.S.A. trilogy. One headline reappears countless times in the text: WATER IS HERE. THE DESERT DISAPPEARS. Why does this bear repeating so many times? The author’s answer is clear. “Water is life; Imperial is, among other things, water; we are Americans, so water must be infinite,’’ Vollmann tells us. “Imperial is America.’’

James Green teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is writing a book about West Virginia coal miners.

By William T. Vollmann
Viking, 1,344 pp., $55

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