Random Thought 'Reviews': Imperial

(Non-fiction book by William Vollmann)
When a Book is an Event Thoughts by Bruce Young

Written on: November 1, 2013

Spoilers: The book is long and doesnít have much of a ďrealĒ narrative to it. So if you are hoping/expecting something else, it isnít going to change half-way (or 3/4, or 4/5) of the way through.

When you plow through a 1150+ page book, it can be more like a journey than a 'read'. If it is the right book, a lot of different tangents can spring to mind during this travel, this encounter, this relationship, this challenge.

While tackling Imperial by William Vollmann, many thoughts have come to mind: my travels and time in the Southwest, the relationship and attitudes towards California now and over the past centuries, the variable Mexican/American relationship over time. But one that especially stood out was based on brief encounters and a few passing lines.

At one point, Vollmann is traveling down the New River Ė a waste-loaded waterway that travels up from Mexico and drains into the Salton Sea, a huge lake created by a damming/ canaling accident around the turn of the 20th century. On this trip, Vollmann casually mentions that his friend 'Larry' accompanied him and at one point had to jump out and help push the boat off some entanglements. Now, a few years before this occurred, I had the pleasure of meeting 'Larry' at a local convention (Death Equinox) and found him an interesting and friendly fellow. Another of his features is that every time I saw him, he was wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt. So the image leapt to my mind of 'Larry' with a bright floral pattern all over his clothes (and maybe, maybe, a life jacket on top) bounding into the stinking fluid to help shove off a Zodiac-style raft.

Another tweak happened that made me wish I had finished this earlier. As can be expected a lot of Imperial deals with border life, both north and south of the Mexican-US border (even called "Northside" and "Southside" by locals). Much of the info gleaned from this would have been useful while watching Breaking Bad (especially aspects of life in Northern Mexico). Another view on life by a boundary line (admittedly further west of NM...) would have helped bring more nuance and background to that story for me as well.

But back to the book itself. Imperial provides a deep examination of life in the South-East corner of California; a land where water and broccoli and cheap labor have not just defined the people, but the landscape as well. More like the cross-section of a downed tree than a linear history, it touches upon many, many, many aspects of life there. Centuries of history, development, colonization, corruption, and regulation are touched on and meld into a stew for the reader. The volume of material and jumping from area to topic to personal narrative can be disconcerting, but it combines and bubbles into your mind producing a near-immersive effect on the reader. This is the strength and power of Imperial and keeps if from being more like a catalog of topics or 3-4 books combined into one massive tome.

Verdict: You wonít walk away from this as an expert on the history of Southern California, but itíll be like youíve lived there for a bit and have some clue as to what happens daily, yearly, and centuryly. If thatís worth the time and effort, go for it.

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