DISCUSSED: Twenty-Five Miles of Lightless Road, A Map of Heartbreak, Valley Fever, Maquiladoras, Delineation, Graveside Elegies, Borges, Places Where We Fall in Love, The Most Polluted Body of Water in the United States, Encyclopedic Novels, A One-Stop Shop for Varieties of Human Suffering

The parable runs that once upon a time, the city fathers of Calexico… prohibited alcohol, and thereby brought into being Mexicali, where the very first place of business… was a plank set up under a mesquite tree where mescal and tequila were dispensed.

—William T. Vollmann, Imperial


The international border to our south has a way of encouraging derangement in the two countries it separates. The border—a sometimes fence—is two thousand miles of brush and desert, dotted by US and Mexican cities and towns that stare at each other across the line, through a glass darkly. My own border town, El Centro, California, is a place that four generations of my family, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, have called home. The town shares an arid climate, the Colorado River, an agricultural economy, and a sense of blasted isolation with its much larger Mexican neighbor, Mexicali.

Getting there is simple: Leave San Diego, head east on I-8 into the mountains. Drive ninety miles, until you’re swerving down a steep mountain grade with the desert floor below. Now you’re in Imperial County. Take twenty-five more miles of a lightless, ruler-straight road through the desert. Here is El Centro, Imperial’s county seat and largest town, where being Mayor is still a part-time job, the two state prisons are huge employers, and kids are a lot more likely to join the fight in Iraq or Afghanistan than they are to go to college. I say I’m from California, because I am, but an entire image of California is sanded down and burned off along these highways south and east. Beach-front, Hollywood, “San Francisco liberals,” and film actors with second careers in state government are replaced by a place where a few thousand people will line up before dawn to apply for a few hundred jobs at a new Food-4-Less.

Imperial County gives William T. Vollmann the title, and the subject, of his new nonfiction book, Imperial. Owing to some tendentious geographical license, Imperial spans much more than Imperial County, as Vollmann draws his history and stories from what census takers know as Riverside County, parts of Arizona, and Baja California. However you draw the map, this is a place of nested worlds: rural and urban; American and Mexican; desert and farmland. The place seems to have burned into Vollmann’s skin, haunted him with visions of American hubris, failure, and decay and Mexican suffering, pride, and powerlessness. For Vollmann, “Imperial” is something metaphysical, a state of mind, a map of heartbreak.[1]

  1. “Imperial” is Vollmann’s own designation. No one living in Imperial County would say they live in “Imperial” unless they meant the small town of that name. Residents would say “the valley,” meaning the general area, or even the states of mind that prevail there (e.g. “valley fever,” when you’ve been there too long).

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Casey Walker is working on a dissertation in English Literature at Princeton University and finishing a novel. He votes absentee on California ballot propositions and dreams of high-speed rail.

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