By William Vollmann
1,344 pages; Viking
William Vollmann' s monumental new book, Imperial , is his 18th in the past 22 years, and, at more than 1,300 pages, it testifies to the scale on which he works. Vollmann is his own tradition, capturing in fiction and memoir his own plentiful craziness and beautiful desires and chronicling—from such places as Alaska, Afghanistan, Asia, and the Balkans—many of the world's most desperate disappointments. Imperial is a brilliantly reported and heartrending book about the Imperial Valley, which lies across both sides of the California-Mexico border, brutal desert on one side, "paradise" on the other, a place that has been irrigated into one of the most productive (and costly and destructive) agricultural regions in the United States. This is the land that gave birth to César Chávez, where blood began spilling in the 16th century and hasn't yet let up; where immigrant workers die every week trying to swim and crawl into the United States to work long hours in fields of lethal sunlight. Vollmann delivers his tale in pieces of contemporary conversation, chunks of historical documents and newspaper clippings, and his own stunning prose. The text comes at you like the faces and languages you'd experience walking through Grand Central Terminal at rush hour; it is not only electrifying in the news it brings of ongoing injustice and pain but also a magnificent ballet of fragments, a huge, endless labor, a book of unimaginable skill and inspired genius.
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