Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Growing Pains

William Vollmann stakes out California's underground agricultural economy

Mark Arax


The harvest of grapes begins each May in the fields of Hermosillo, south of the border, where the sweetness arrives early. Over the next month, the ripening moves northward with the sun—across the line of dispute, the line drawn by conquest between the United States and Mexico.

Here on the California side, the grape harvest starts slowly in the desert town of Indio before reaching a frenzied pulse three hundred miles north in the Great Central Valley. By then, it is mid-June and the farmer warily paces his vineyard rows, a Brix meter in hand to measure the sweetness of his field. If the drops of sugar from the crop register at sixteen Brix, it's still too early to pick. If they register at twenty, it's too late. Fortunes are made on those three points in between. As the harvest signal shoots out along the efferent path of Highway 99, the whole valley turns mad. First Mettler, then Arvin, then Delano, and finally all the way north to the vineyards that surround my home in Fresno.

It stands to reason that the Mexican farm workers, tracing a century of footsteps, move in the same direction. From July to October, their battered vans converge on the grape fields before light. We natives, third- and fourth-generation Californians, are asleep. We don't see them entering the vast ovens of dirt where they pick by hand and blade tons of Flames and Superiors and Thompsons and Crimsons, varieties made fat and seedless but not always tasty by the labs of the University of California.

How the Mexican farm worker gets here— what laws he breaks, what indentured debt he owes to the trafficker who makes his passage possible, what wife and children and unborn child he carries with him, what wage he will earn and quota he must meet—is not a matter of immediate concern for most of us.

California's nonstop yield—250 varieties of fruits and vegetables; grains and nuts and cotton; not to mention milk and meth—demands that farmers reach deeper and deeper into the rural heart of Mexico. Today, it is the indigenous of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla, fleeing a new century's dust bowl, who answer the harvest call. The bands of Mixtec pickers and packers now number an estimated seventy-five thousand in the fields from Imperial to Fresno.

Ask any farmer in the mood to confide—even one who insulates himself with a labor contractor—and he will tell you that his workers come bearing papers, but that these papers, in eight cases out of ten, are fraudulent. And so the ebb and flow of the illegal crossings, the grudging symbiosis between industrial agriculture and peasant labor, remains the epic story of this land.

Few American writers have engaged this story deeply. This only raises hopes for William T. Vollmann's Imperial, an evocation of the border world—its farms and farm workers, its ceaseless migrant traffic, its boom-and-bust towns, its brothels and bars—that the author tackles with the same brilliance and mania that have distinguished many of his seventeen previous works of nonfiction and fiction. That count includes half a dozen hefty books that Vollmann has penned in the past ten years alone—the time frame in which he reported and wrote Imperial.

Tipping the scales at four pounds, sprawling 1,344 pages, Imperial comes packaged in the promise of an epic. A separate book of photographs, also published under the title Imperial, presents hundreds of portraits and other revealing images of borderland life that Vollmann snapped himself. In a generation of gadgets and their glow, his painstaking efforts to document the old-fashioned way can be inspiring. Yet the very qualities that have marked Vollmann's best work—his restless investigative spirit, his eye for the broader sweep of history, his intense verbal energy—tend to backfire in the larger book. The result is a messy, unrealized narrative.

Vollmann adopts an appropriately expansive geographic definition of the Imperial region, one that extends well beyond the California county of the same name. It stretches, in his chronicle, from Greater Los Angeles to Mexico's Sea of Cortez and centers on the outposts of Calexico and Mexicali, sister cities sitting eyelash to eyelash on opposite sides of the line. His Imperial, characterized by the lordly, conquering resonance of the word, does not heed the borderline. The landscapes on both sides, what Vollmann calls Northside and Southside, share far too many traits—soil, water, sun—to be considered anything but one.

"The wall comes slicing through everything, transforming continuum into opposition," Vollmann writes. "Northside and Southside are antipodes, we all agree on that. But the line of workers in those fields, brightly clothed and stooping, oh yes, they could be anywhere in Imperial or out of it; I've seen them picking lettuce way up north in Salinas. . . . This border walled off for the express purpose of denying the undeniable oneness of Imperial, there's many a parable in it all!"

Take race and national identity, for example. Once upon a time, Vollmann informs us, the first settlers of Northside married young women with suspiciously Southside surnames, if not skins. Thus the blood of the people of Imperial was breached, too. What is a Mexican? What is a Caucasian? Of the thousands of Chinese in Calexico and Mexicali, who is purely Chinese? Vollmann muses, "Syncretism is a slender Chinese girl at the restaurant counter, maybe with Mexican blood in her because her skin is darker and ruddier than that of the other Chinese; she speaks Spanish to her Mexican boyfriend. . . . Syncretism is when you drink an orange juice and suddenly taste chili in the bottom of a glass."

By navigating Imperial, a hub of endless coming and going, Vollmann seeks to shed fresh light on the debate over immigration, agribusiness, and the century-long exploitation of an imported peasant class. There would seem to be no better place, at least on our side of the border, to peer into the dark soul of American imperialism and understand the forces of migration that are reshaping not only the West but every corner of the United States.

To handle the sheer scale of his research, Vollmann hires enough friends and strangers to field a football team. There's a Mormon genealogist to trace the movements of Imperial's pioneers, a statistician to analyze farm-production trends, a lab technician to measure the Salton Sea's pollution, Juan the cokehead to ferry Vollmann to his favorite bars and brothels, Jose the water guide to canoe him through the New River where bodies are said to be dumped, a Chinese interpreter to locate the reputed tunnels that snake beneath Mexicali's old Chinatown, private eyes Mr. W and Mr. D and a female spy with large breasts (all the better to hide Vollmann's tiny button camera) to expose Southside's pollution-spewing factories.

As he unpacks his epic, Vollmann advises readers that his methodology is no methodology at all. "This book . . . forms itself as it goes. Fields, hay-walls, towns and fences comprise my thoroughfare; I have no sites to visit in Imperial County or out of it; I'm free to chase after white birds in green alfalfa fields as long as the heat fails to discourage me; I don't care that I'll never finish anything."

The odyssey begins, appropriately, with a tightly focused set piece smack-dab on the California-Mexico border. Vollmann is crouched next to the banks of the All-American Canal, which runs along the US side of the border westward of the wall. He has accompanied veteran border officer Dan Murray on one of his methodical prowls to keep the "have-not millions" from entering Northside's gardens of paradise. "You should see these guys pickin' watermelon, bent over all day," Murray says. "They do work most Americans wouldn't do."

This admiration does not deter Murray from the night's mission. The evening before, Murray and his crew rounded up eighty-five illegal aliens—solos crossing alone, pollos crossing with the aide of a "coyote." A week earlier, on a midnight shift, they snared 580 poor souls attempting to cross by foot or raft. On this night, Murray and the boys traverse a silt-covered field carved out of an ancient seabed, their headlights shining a cruel bright on the furrows. A fellow agent assists them with the vision of his nightscope. Through the lens, the entire scene turns green.

"The aliens glowed white like evil extraterrestrial beings or zombies out of a science-fiction movie. The nightscope man could also reverse the contrast if he chose, so that the bodies became green silhouettes in a glowing white field of night-ness," Vollmann writes. "How eerie it was! Only the nightscope man could see! The aliens lurked on faith that the darkness was their invincible friend."

Over the next eight hundred or so pages, Vollmann piles on the details of Imperial's past and present—and a good deal of the material is indeed revealing. The official surveyors and subdividers, arriving rather late at the nineteenth century's end, discovered what the native Indians had long ago mythologized: an extensive plain of scorching emptiness, the "Sahara of California." The Golden State boom impresario Edgar F. Howe, in 1910, rightly calculated that the only thing needed to realize his vision of a new Egypt was water. Once it would be captured and siphoned and turned into the spoils of irrigation, he wrote, "we can see the possible unification of Imperial and Coachella Valleys in a continuous garden from the Mexican line to the mountains which cleave Southern California." The Salton Sea, with its abundant tilapia and bird corpses, may have been an ancient wonder, but it wouldn't exist today if not for the hand of man. Its present incarnation rose from an engineer's precise cut on the western bank of the Colorado River in 1904, shunting water destined for Mexico to the thirsty settlers of the Imperial Valley. In flood years, of course, Northside got more than it bargained for. One year, desperate to contain the river's breach, the boomers shipped in by rail a mountain of gravel, rocks, boulders, and clay—and when that didn't contain the floodwaters, they threw in the railroad cars themselves.

Vollmann then turns his energies to the legend of Imperial's Chinese tunnels, pushing past the silence of the Chinese community to discover an old warren of underground gambling halls and opium dens. In his investigation of the bottom line for the region's most powerful force—big agriculture—he unearths a century of commodity prices that he runs through the pages like ticker tape. A few of the figures prove telling. Imperial cantaloupes, in the summer of 1919, retailed in Los Angeles for fifteen dollars apiece. "Tropical California," the Imperial booster ads proclaimed. "The land of early fruits and vegetables." Vollmann discovers that it was once quite possible to make a million dollars on a hundred-day lettuce harvest. But as the stories of sudden wealth spread, luring all manner of wildcatters, guess what crop all the farmers began planting overnight. One year's lettuce jackpot, he finds, gave way to the next year's lettuce glut. The remorseless boom-and-bust rhythm of farming in Imperial ensured that, at each cycle's end, only the bigger farms were left standing.

In 1930, the average Imperial farm measured 110 acres. By 1954, it was 337 acres. By 2002, 957 acres. Over those seven decades, the number of farms fell from 4,769 to 537. The billionaire Bass brothers, oil scions out of Fort Worth, Texas, now own forty-two thousand acres—almost 10 percent of the Imperial Valley. Like the other big boys, they aren't growing crops so much as farming the future promise of wheeling water to the suburbs—tracts that will surely be Imperial's next gardens of paradise. This may be sad, but as the Chamber of Commerce man likes to say, it's merely the "highest and best use" of the land.

"Exploration, Delineation, Subdivision," Vollmann chants—the one-two-three recipe for inland conquest. And he finds the still-vital markers of past conquest everywhere. He chases, for example, the legacy of Harry Chandler, the land and water baron whose family not only ran the Los Angeles Times but planted a region of new development all the way down to Mexico. He revisits the Bracero Program, which attempted from the 1940s to the 1960s to govern the migratory patterns of farm workers, and he hunts down the ghost of César Chávez, too. He finds, as other writers have found, that Chávez's United Farm Workers union—and the broader social movement it midwifed—was undermined by a porous border that furnished union-hating farmers with an endless well of exploitable labor. Vollmann gives us the compelling voices of the workers in two- and three-page chapters with titles such as "The Days of Lupe Vásquez" and "The Days of Carmen Carillo and Susana Caudillo." He explores the everywhere image of their Virgin of Guadalupe and the narcocorridos (drug ballads) that have been outlawed—yet still sung with mucho gusto—in the farm-worker bars of Southside.

Vollmann knows well that many of these people and topics have been amply covered in previous books and essays. It doesn't matter—he is counting on his extraordinary voice to give us what the others did not. Sometimes he succeeds. But for whole stretches of Imperial, the reader is left with an accretion of detail that serves no larger rationale than that this was simply where Vollmann's capacious mind wanted to go. As is the case in some of his other works, Vollmann goes to great lengths to avoid telling a story in the conventional sense, one with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Like other writers of his generation, epigones of Joyce and Pynchon, he seems to wave off structure as a contrivance—or, worse, a straitjacket that only lesser talents need. Better to use one's own outsize gifts to meander and wildly juxtapose; to play verbal games and maybe even invent.

These tricks of his trade might be easier to indulge in a work of fiction; indeed, Vollmann notes that he'd earlier thought of framing the material in Imperial as a novel. But when the subject matter is as real and as genuinely urgent as it is here, readers should not have to strain for coherence the way Vollmann often demands they do.

Taking us inside his own bedroom would seem no substitute for narrative accessibility, either. And yet there we are, as Vollmann imagines performing oral sex on an unnamed woman he calls the love of his life, who has dumped him for good. His heartbreak goes on for many pages and ends with a tedious, diaristic recitation: "She was haunting, fascinating, dangerous, submissive, cautious, affectionate and affection-starved, intuitive sometimes to the point of telepathy but often paranoid, sensitive in both the good and bad sense, loyal, graceful, possessive and cruel, erotic, weak, indomitable, ethical, compulsive, generous, sweet-smelling, disorganized, sharp-tongued, anxious, and lavishly loving. She was my heart. She was my sorrowful angel." He will later apologize for this interlude. "Upon Imperial's blankness . . . it becomes all too easy to project myself, which is a way of discovering nothing." Yet a few hundred pages later, he takes us inside another room where he is facedown in the haunches of a borderland prostitute.

Vollmann suffers other tics. His obsession with the inland agricultural empire rarely allows him a metaphor that doesn't reach back inside the confines of Imperial itself. Thus a man's face is as "wrinkled as the cracked rows of earth in a sugar beet field in high summer." Or a woman's face is "as white as the sands just east of Palm Springs." Or migrants slithering up and down the border fence move like a naked girl who slithers up and down the pole of the Miau-Miau Club. Or the array of hot sauces at a local restaurant reveals Imperial's "piquant" variety of life.

As I plowed my way through the topical sprawl and confessional digressions of Imperial, I couldn't help wondering how a writer with more manageable narrative aims might have handled the same subject. One could easily envision, for instance, the approach that J. Anthony Lukas used in Common Ground, a structure that focused on three or four families and their intersections with one another and the land: a clan of white pioneers whose farm, by necessity, has grown from small to modest to large; two clans of Mexican farm workers pushed and pulled northward for several generations, one that puts down roots in Northside and one that returns to Southside; a clan of Chinese who find their Gold Mountain in Mexicali, first in the tunnels and now above.

Vollmann, by contrast, folds such stories into his own obsessive musings rather than tracking them across the broader terrain he's staked out. After meeting one local woman, in a canyon overlooking Tijuana, Vollmann wonders to himself how the vast forces shaping the region might look from her vantage, but then dismisses the prospect. "Perhaps if I had lived in her house for a month or a year, I might have made some progress in apprehending the properties of that particular globule. . . . But that canyon was difficult to get to. Nor did I speak Spanish. Nor was I willing to give myself more than intermittently to Imperial. After three hours, I departed that canyon forever."

Vollmann wants his wonderful energy and dazzling riffs to carry readers along in the wake of the great forces of land consolidation, poverty, wealth, and peasant labor he's set out to chronicle. But for too many of Imperial's ambitious, informative, but ultimately frustrating pages, that impulse comes across as a simple failure of discipline, an unwillingness to decide what to leave out and what to give further shape. By leaving out seemingly nothing, by piling on everything to leveling effect, Vollmann renders the land of Imperial very flat and scorching indeed.

Mark Arax is the author of West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State (PublicAffairs, 2009).

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