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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower

desert look out towerDesert Tower in Jacumba, CA.

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Almost every reviewer of Imperial by William T. Vollmann asks the question "Who wants to read 1300 pages about Imperial County and environs?" like there is nobody out there interested in the subject. Well, I am. This book is probably the most significant book of any kind to be published about Imperial County. I know, because I have researched the issue. I personally asked Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, "Do you know of any books that focus on Imperial County? His answer, "Maybe a graduate thesis or two, that's all I know about." So.

Imperial is 20 chapters plus. The first chapter is basically an extended length Vollmann-style piece of magazine journalism about the people-who-cross-the-border or "bodies" as Vollmann calls them. Each chapter carries a date that correlates to a specific year that Vollmann was doing the field research to write Imperial. One of my earliest memories of San Diego (living here) was reading in the San Diego Reader about how Vollmann was coming down here for a book. We're talking 2001-02. The first chapter is set in "1999" and the "pre-9/11ness" of the setting is not only apparent, but commented on by Vollmann-the-author.

I write this as someone who is deeply, deeply interested in the Mexicali/Calexico border. It is, in fact, about 20% of my job to drive out to El Centro and handle Federal criminal cases out there. I would read a 500 page book by Vollmann on the subject of chapter one. I have been to some of the places he describes, and I am deeply, deeply impressed by the level of thought he has brought to bear on this subject: crossing the border. I know Vollmann's characters in this chapter, and I can personally attest to the accuracy of Vollmann's depiction.

But as for criticism, the border is too obvious a place to launch such an endeavor. I would have preferred a chapter on the natural history of the mountains that separate imperial valley from the coast. I think the mountains to the west of the Imperial valley are deeply interesting. It is only an accident of civilization that they have not been celebrated in myth & legend for thousands of years. I guess it's entirely possible that Vollmann will get to it, but I would have liked to read about it first.

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