It is glorious in its 1100 pp. plus of text, analytical diatribes, love stories, monomaniacal rants, ecological analyses, and unevenly eloquent prose. I'm on p.206 and so far it's a first-rate book on the Mexican-American border (Imperial is a county in California), low lifes, the desperation of America's empty spaces, and this is from an author who issues books like others do blog posts.
Suddenly I turn the page and see a heading: Warning of Impending Aridity. Some text follows:
This book represents my attempt to become a better-informed citizen of North America. Our "American dream" is founded on the notion of the self-sufficient homestead. The "Mexican dream" may be a trifle different, but requires its kindred material basis. Understanding how these two hopes played out over time required me to cultivate statistical parables about farm size, waterscapes, lettuce prices, etcetera. I have harvested them (doubtless bruising overripe numbers on the way), and now present them to you. Some of them may be too desiccated for your taste. If you skip the chapters devoted to them, you will finish the book sooner, and never suspect the existence of my arithmetical errors. As for you devotees of Dismal Science, I hope you will be awestruck by my sincerity about Mexicali Valley cotton prices.
Jason Kottke has an excellent post on Vollmann's book, with links and excerpts. One description is: "Just write that it's like Robert Caro's The Power Broker," she said, "but with the attitude of Mike Davis's City of Quartz"…but even that turns out to be inadequate:
Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange.
How's that for the best sentence I read last night (it's from Sam Anderson)? As Vollmann himself once said: 'I used to think the Imperial Valley was hot, flat and boring,'