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3.94  ·  Rating details ·  224 Ratings  ·  64 Reviews

From the author of "Europe Central," a journalistic tour de force along the Mexican-American border.
For generations of migrant workers, Imperial Country has held the promise of paradise and the reality of hell. It sprawls across a stirring accidental sea, across the deserts, date groves and labor camps of Southeastern California, right across the border into Mexico. In
ebook, 1344 pages
Published July 30th 2009 by Penguin Books (first published 2009)
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Jul 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Imperial is… entity spreading from Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean eastward to the Colorado River where the Hoover Dam lords over arid America and extending southward down past the border wall into Southside and oblivion beyond the trickling beginnings of the fetid Rio Nuevo and pale mountains purpling in the desert dusk; it is the “center of all secrets, and therefore center of the world”; Imperial is lettucescapes and orangescapes and lemonscapes and grapefruitscapes and onionscapes and
May 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An important book, today more than ever. Its wide range and its willingness to explore its own faults and limitations make it even more valuable in our dogmatically inclined age.

A tale of: naivety; greed; hope; corruption; desire; freedom and enslavement; water and salt; capitalism red in tooth and claw; shortsightedness; and lettuce.

José Clemente Orozco - Cortes y la Malinche (1926)

"One of the saddest paintings I know.." WTV

UPWA Striker with California Bracero Program workers in the backgr
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
What is this entity called Imperial? I don’t know. I have never visited, except for a few afternoons spent in the nearby gardens of the Stone brewery. But I have spent some time with an entity called Imperial. What is Imperial? It is immense. Let us count up its size. One thousand three hundred and six pages is she. Of that number, eleven hundred and twenty five pages constitute the main narrative portion of our book. 208 chapters, all told. You will be pleased to know that chapter 208 is entitl ...more
Imperial is—

My backyard. Where I grew up. Where I drank beer and smoked pot in the deserts of my youth. Where my father, best friend, and I hitchhiked back after flipping our truck 800-miles from home on a Mexican expedition. Where we paid coyotes money to let us lie in the back of their truck beds, atop stacks of sundry items American’s would call ‘junk,’ and vomited backwards onto the highway for hundreds of miles as they safely took us from town to town. Where I knew true kindness. It is whe
Apr 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brief Glossary


Concerning the Maps

(To reduce the price and bulk of this paperback edition, the author agreed to omit most of the endmatter that appeared in the hardcover edition. Readers curious about those sections---"A Chronology of Imperial," "Sources," and "Persons Interviewed"---should visit
Imperial happens to be a county wherein two crises of the 21st century are playing out: illegal border crossings and dire water shortages. Vollmann's copious, sprawling, ingeniously crafted text explores these crises in the way fireworks explore the night sky.

Officially, Imperial is about "immigration, agribusiness, and corporate exploitation", and I admit, living in California makes me a prime target for these hot-button issues...although, having read Europe Central, it wasn't going to take muc
Jim Elkins
The book is 1,306 long pages, divided into 13 Parts, with a 24-page bibliography, a 17-page chronology, a list of people Vollmann interviewed, and 112 pages of notes. It is longer than 'Infinite Jest' but shorter than 'The Anatomy of Melancholy.'

I have two sorts of comments. The first are about Part One, 'Introductions,' which is 182 pages long and divided into 12 chapters. I asked myself, as I read this, what reasons I might have to continue on and read the other 12 parts of the book -- especia
Oct 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: place, e-read
He wrote an article in Harper's that made me want more. I had a long think with myself between paper and electronic. Though I prefer anything with a lot of charts and illustrations on paper, I went for the electronic edition to avoid carrying the brick. This made the swim to the other side unencumbered such that I could sprawl as freely as the book. However, had this been an older book with a certain kind of smell, a name scrawled in the front, some underlinings and marginalia, I would have carr ...more
Mar 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I did a bit of checking around, and the first several professional reviews I read for "Imperial" were pretty negative--and for what I thought were pretty lame reasons. For sure William T. Vollmann's tome is fragmented and lays down a circuitous narrative from start to finish, but his meandering, idiosyncratic, almost pointless story that slowly unravels like a song about doomed love is exactly what makes "Imperial" so compelling and readable. (And I just read somewhere that the best writing shou ...more
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“…just as the Salton Sea lies blue beneath a blue sky, grey under clouds, so any delineation of Imperial depends on the delineator, which means that whatever Imperial is must get expressed, no matter how scrupulously and intelligently, as a variety of shifting if hopefully overlapping entities even if we all confine ourselves to a single aspect of the place at a mutually agreed instant. My best hope (which doesn’t seem awfully good) is that when we overlay those delineations, each plotted consc
Jan 20, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I tried. Oh, how I tried. I grew up in the Imperial Valley. I write about the Imperial Valley. I know people interviewed in this book. I couldn't even get halfway through it.

I'll read the rest of the book after Vollmann decides to finish doing his job as a writer and rewrites and edits this unnecessarily long ramble. Just because a book is long, doesn't make it good or insightful. In fact, this was like reading a stack of notebooks that you'd find in an attic. Repetitive, unorganized, and so foc
Sep 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Every now and then I might get macho about reading a really BIG book. But that's not why I started this one, I swear it. I just wanted to read any book at all by Vollmann, because I kept coming across his prose in magazines or excerpts or whatever, and it's always golden to me. I could have chosen a thinner book -- for instance, every other book by him is thinner -- but I also have a passing interest in the fucked-up ecosystem/economy/history of the Salton Sea region, which lies within this book ...more
Bigger, better, faster, more streamlined, more productive: this is the religion of the movers and makers, the technophiles and tycoons indebted to raising us out of the muck of our lame blood and tissues into profitable godliness. Of course there are the dissenters, the retrograde prophets: your Thoreaus and your Mumfords, your Ned Ludds, who want to roll back the clock. For my part I'm more sympathetic to this type, regardless of the unattainability of their respective dreams. Our friend Willia ...more
Jesse K
Jul 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2009
Imperial will probably be more "respected" than read. I would be a liar if I didn't admit that the irrigation and farming statistics, despite having a logical purpose in the narrative, did grow a bit boring. At the same time, the stuff about chinese tunnels, maquiladoras, drug ballads, and the new river more than made up for it. (It was also neat that the LA sections mentioned an exact block that I have lived on and the street that I currently live on.) Rising Up and Rising Down was more of a fu ...more
Joan Colby
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If one best learns a language by total immersion, then one can likewise learn of place as William Vollman sets out to prove in his massive study “Imperial” which bombards the reader with every sort of datum on the California-Mexican area. Major themes include distribution of water, the transformation of small farms to vast agricultural domains, the plight of the Mexican illegal immigrant, the history of the Chinese in Mexico, accounts of early settlers, and more, much more. “Imperial” documents ...more
Jane Ciabattari
Feb 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Exhaustive, exhausting, all you need to know about that place where everything North American converges. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in nonfiction (to be announced March 11)...
Parashar B.
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have never been cheated out of a dollar in my life.

The amount of research and time that went into this book is amazing, and deserves 5 stars for that alone. Beyond that, I think Vollmann does a great job interspersing interviews and current events with the history of the region. It somehow keeps you entertained and engaged over 1100 pages, where I think writing this in chronological order wouldn't have worked. Definitely recommended if you have the time!

Ian Young
Jul 17, 2014 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Who is our author, William T. Vollman? Imagine that Norman Maclean took peyote, climbed to the top of the Y in the Hollywood sign, and spent three days up there hallucinating that he was Hunter S. Thompson. Then on the third night he disappeared and no one heard a thing from him until five months later he stepped off a cargo ship in San Pedro with a tattoo and a slight limp that he didn't have before. That, perhaps, is William T. Vollman. Or else that's only the memory of a William T. Vollman wh ...more
Feb 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Imperial is a paean to the American dream, to the process by which the Imperial valley budded, bloomed and declined thanks in no small part to water. MOISTURE MEANS MILLIONS. Imperial is a 3.8lb hardback in a handsome dust jacket which I finally finished on flight AA45 from CDG to JFK, cruising at an altitude of 30,000ft. Imperial is an ever-increasing series of unexplained segues into the author's many encounters with Mexicali's street prostitutes. Imperial occasionally reaches the giddy height ...more
Tim Basuino
Nov 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Four weeks ago I started reading the first over-1,000 page book since I tackled Shelby Foote’s Civil War series in 2010. For the record, I found this novel at Dublin’s Half-Priced Books for $5.99, and I got well more than my money’s worth.

California has 58 counties, of which I’ve visited all but three: Trinity, nestled away on Highway 299 in the northwest corner of the state, Modoc County in the far northeast corner, and at the southeast corner: Imperial (I do believe my dad had been to El Centr
Jun 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Imperial County is by most accounts a failure. The story this book tells is that it wasn't always that way...

Around the 1900s - 1920s, Imperial was a destination if you had agricultural dreams. With a very hot climate year-round, many things could grow all year. Imperial County once used to be the #1 supplier of melons! In any case, this book is also mainly a story about water. Water rights play a huge role in the (de)evolution of Imperial's fate.

Being an agricultural hub, Imperial is also the
Apr 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A non-linear history of Imperial County, California. Vollmann catches the desertness of the place, illegal aliens, narcocorridos, Chinese tunnels, the casual vice of Mexicali, maquiladoras, the creaction of the Salton Sea, and now the decline of Imperial.

Vollmann is careful, balanced and wistful. He asks, but does not answer, the question of taming the desert with irrigation water and the subsequent bloom of agriculture. Now Imperial is in slow decline because it is more profitable to sell the
Nov 17, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, salton-sea
What a strange trip; visceral, transcendent, dull, irrelevant - all of that. From some very important observations about border culture and the ghosts of boosterism in California to a bunch of ill-advised metaphors about prostitutes and a catalog of vaginal imagery. So is Imperial a good book or a bad one, I guess it depends where you dive in. One this is for sure, it is vast and in the end its strengths are at least as manifold as its weaknesses. If it could be paired down to 300 pages of strik ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Oct 03, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nov-dec-2009
While some of them said it more politely than others, reviewers generally agreed that most readers will find the size of Imperial overwhelming (not to mention the $55 price tag). But none could dismiss Vollmann's work, and most praised it strongly. They admired not only Vollmann's bombastic literary and personal style but his choice of subject matter. For all his digressions, Vollmann centers his story on a region defined by humans' ongoing attempts to control water, and several reviewers were i ...more
Jun 26, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I gave up a little over 10% of the way through the book and am still giving it three stars. I guess that says something.

Vollmann an incredible writer who can combine the personal and the journalistic (his abilities to interview coyotes and undocumented immigrants is impressive) with ease. He's figured out this is an incredible place to chronicle and (not that I know) seems to be really feeling something true about it -- he at least seems to Get it. It's a Book, with great literary ambition (see
"Imperial is about a part of Southeastern California where I have relatives who are farmers. The story of the Imperial Valley distills the seamiest sides of California history: turning the desert to farmland with corrupt water deals; environmental degradation; housing booms and housing busts; graveyards of nameless illegal immigrants pursuing busted dreams in El Norte. The story is peculiarly Californian while also capturing the flavor of every border in the world, which all share certain qualit ...more
Larry Jonas
Where do I begin? This book is the work of a crazy genius. This book is a mess. It's huge, sprawling, insightful, and (in my opinion) unfocused. In short this is classic Vollman. If you really really love Vollman, I would recommend this book. For people who have never read him, it will just be too much. Fabulous source notes. The publisher did a great packaging job. It's a real acheivemment to publish over 1,000 pages of changing typefaces and illustrations throughout the body of the text. Vikin ...more
Thomas Clark
This is a 1200 page book; I've enjoyed it so far and appreciate the type of research done over the ten year span it took Vollmann to compile, format, and organize. I definitely would like to see the companion book of photographs that the author released at the same time. There's definitely some Kerouac influence in Vollmann's narrative and the book has its own quirky style: I can understand people being turned off but I wasn't. I became immersed in Imperial and found this study of the California ...more
Dec 31, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: desert
I do not recommend this book for most people. It's frustratingly long and detailed to the point of being quite maddening at times. Yet some of the time I loved this book. Without the footnotes it's 1150 pages. Reduce repetition and cut out 300 pages and it'd be a lot stronger. But Vollmann has guts. He doesn't compromise. And I respect that. Took me 7 months to read, in which time I put Imperial down at times and read about 20 other books. You gotta take breaks, but it's do-able. I've never been ...more
Nov 21, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Granted I didn't make it through this 1200-page behemoth...
I read and skimmed 300-400 pages. His research is extensive, but his rambling is awful. Where the f*ck was his editor? He totally lost me when he went on a 7-page tangent about why an ex-lover scorned him because she didn't appreciate his cunnilingus. Indeed, Vollman sucks.

I referenced his bibliography in order to learn more about this interesting subject, but avoid this book unless you need a paperweight or something to bludgeon yoursel
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William T Vollman...: 2009 Imperial 47 87 Dec 07, 2016 05:37AM  
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William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.

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