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On the Border

Sunday, August 9, 2009

IMPERIAL

By William T. Vollmann

Viking. 1,306 pp. $55

"Imperial is the continuum between Mexico and America." On this eight-word foundation, essayist/provocateur William T. Vollmann has erected a 208-chapter, four-pound fortress of verbiage in honor of Imperial County, California's desert-turned-garden-turned-desert where farmers squabble over water rights, migrant workers sneak by ever-vigilant border patrol agents, and prostitutes beckon to customers (Vollmann among them) in the dusky half-light of cantinas.

An aborted novel transformed into nonfiction that is simultaneously tedious, exhilarating, dry and heartbreaking, "Imperial" thrives on its smart design (historical documents and Vollmann's own striking photographs break up the immense narrative) and its author's awareness that he can't quite understand his chosen subject. Convinced that his manuscript, "like most human records . . . essentially recounts failure," Vollmann trolls both sides of "the ditch" (his term for the All-American Canal that divides the twin cities of Calexico, U.S., and Mexicali, Mexico) sans driver's license or Spanish-language skills in search of hidden tunnels built by 19th-century Chinese immigrants, or sweatshop conditions in maquiladoras, or navigable portions of the sewage-laden New River, hoping to find some ungettable story that, even if he were the crack investigative journalist he knows he isn't, could never encapsulate Imperial's broke-down majesty. "Imperial does not need me to be itself," Vollmann insists, but no one who reads this singular, significant book -- half Michael Harrington's "The Other America," half James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" -- will contemplate NAFTA, illegal immigration or a trip to a "Southside" brothel without thinking of him.

-- Justin Moyer

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