Monday, July 13, 2015

Imperial by William T Vollmann

37 years ago, I read in Jack Beatty's review of James Michener's Chesapeake in my father's copy of Newsweek: "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Perfect. I didn't read any further in the review. I didn't need to. I don't know much about Beatty. I gather he's gone on to big things at The Atlantic and National Public Radio and as a book author. Won some major literary awards. Good for him. I don't care. I just care about the sentence I quoted, one of my favorite reactions to one of my least favorite writers.

But I'm not here to talk about Beatty, or Michener. I'm here to talk about one of my favorite writers, William T Vollmann, and his marvelous book Imperial. By all means, do read this book, and don't drop it on your foot. I'm serious. It's huge even by Michener standards. 1200 pages in the trade paperback edition, even more in the original hardcover.

But there the similarities with Michener end -- wait, no, of course they don't: Michener's schtick was to focus in each one of his novels on one geographical area -- the Chesapeake Bay area, for example -- and to describe events in that area over time, from the prehistoric to the present. And that's exactly what Vollmann did in Imperial with Imperial County, Callifornia, and the area of Mexico across the border from it.

But there all similarities cease. Vollmann, in stark contrast to Michener, writes very well. His books' sales, unfortunately, do not compare to Michener's. Some of Vollmann's books are novels, but Imperial is non-fiction. The events in Michener's books are mostly in chronological order, while Vollmann constantly jumps back and forth in chronology. And, completely unlike Michener, Vollmann constantly has his thumb in the eye and his foot on the toe of those among the authorities in this world who have thrived by treating poor people cruelly. Unlike Michener, Vollmann spends a lot of time with poor people, in this case including many poor Mexicans who cross the US-Mexico border illegally, in some cases people who have crossed it many times. Unlike Michener, Vollmann describes prostitutes and drug addicts as if they were actually human beings.

Vollmann writes with exhilarating righteous anger. Well -- anger and love, each person among the very, very many living and historical figures receiving what Vollmann thinks he or she deserves.

Imperial has a lot of information about water in California. So hey, it's topical suddenly! Hopefully Vollmann will be propelled onto the bestseller lists where he belongs. Right now none of the editions of Imperial seem to be near Amazon's top 100,000 sellers in books. I'm telling ya, people, you're missing the boat here. The book has a lot of info about how the US screws Mexico over, and has been for hundreds of years, putting a different spin on events than what we often get in accounts of US-Mexican relations, and backing it up with copious reference to primary sources. Water is one of the big ways the screwing over is done. The All-American Canal basically empties out the Colorado River before it crosses from the US into Mexico, and sends all that water into the farms of Imperial County. Yes, a large region of Mexico was turned into uninhabitable desert by this diversion or water. The name of the county provides a very handy metaphor for the treatment of Mexico by the US which Vollmann describes. Not to mention the name of that canal.

Vollmann is not a reserved writer. His writing is not disciplined in any way, shape or form, and it's a very good thing. His example is a strong argument that no one should write in a reserved manner, ever, about anything.

I've read the acknowledgments in very many books; those in Imperial are the only ones I know which, besides thanking people, also single out and name people who were remarkable for their unhelpfulness in the writing of the book. Just two unhelpful people, two California bureaucrats, amid effusive praise of many helpful people. Well, three altogether, but Vollmann also describes the third bureaucrat as overworked, which does mitigate the criticism somewhat.

So read Vollmann's books, okay? This is the good stuff.

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