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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 7: No Reds in Imperial County

road between el centro and brawleyThe Road Between El Centro and Brawley


Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress
Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali
Vollmann Diaries 6: To El Centro and Return


Let me ask you reader: What do you THINK happened when labor organizers tried to get involved with Imperial valley labor conditions? Oh, it was a bloody mess I can assure you. Well, maybe not so troubling if you are a fan of right-wing police state tactics like: American legionaires kidnapping an ACLU lawyer from his hotel room and leaving him to die, naked, in the desert. Like: The brutal beating of a lawyer on the steps of the court house by county employees. This is not to say what happened to the Mexicans. I think you can guess.

In parts 7 & 8 of Imperial, Vollmann gets into the "What happened here?" question by means of statistics. What is the average size of a farm in Imperial over time? What are the prices of crops in Imperial over time? He uses graphs a-plenty. I suppose this is what he warned readers back on page 3, but for me this is central to what makes this book great. Vollmann is saying things not said. Things not said by Mike Davis, famed author of City of Quartz, who looked at me blankly when I asked him if there were any books "like his" about the Imperial Valley.

Vollmann concludes that the story of Imperial is the story of smaller "family" farmers giving way to large, absentee corporate farmers. So what else is new? But Vollmann links that story to individual's whose lives he traces using public records. One rancher who killed himself, another who left a bitter memoir at the local museum depository.

After his discussions of labor politics he practically apologizes for the absence of material related to Native Americans. I find this understandable, but almost inexcusable. It's hard for me to believe that he didn't have money to do the work, but that's what the Vollmann-as-narrator. The paucity of the chapter on Native American inhabitants of Imperial is my only significant criticism of Imperial to this date.

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