William T. Vollmann

Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963
Kevin Starr
Oxford University Press

It’s not that William T. Vollmann is a difficult writer to read. Just the opposite: His work tends to pull the reader forward, sentence by sentence, creating momentum. It’s more that he writes so damn much; his books are simply a daunting undertaking.

What he needs isn’t less vision; it’s a really strong editor.

The main complaint about his latest tome, Imperial, about the southernmost part of California where the state fades into Mexico, is that it lacks a central focus beyond its subject matter. Whatever Vollmann was hoping to learn about the area, either he didn’t find it or he’s decided to keep it secret.

The other complaint is that, once again, Vollmann manages to observe the darkest and most heart-wrenching aspects of life and remain unmoved.

His rich description of the pollution of the New River—including his own trip on it, to personally experience an immigrant’s plight—is detached from any sense of either revulsion or compassion. The same is true for the stories of the pollos, pollinistas and coyotes (Vollmann exhaustively defines these terms) who navigate the crossing; the junkies, Border Patrol agents, strippers, and farmers he both talks to and describes in depth.

He writes of coyotes raping the women who’ve crossed, one by one, in a motel bathroom (a sort of sick surtax on their passage into the United States). All the immigrants are held hostage pending payment in the same cramped room, but there is no sense that he—or we, for that matter—ought to feel anything but a detached curiosity about the whole matter.

If readers can get past those two big barriers, expect Vollmann’s usual encyclopedic detail, lush description and willingness to go anywhere and talk to everybody. There’s a lot to know about Imperial: the valley, the county, geology and people. But there is little to tie things together overall. It’s almost as if, after 10 years of off-and-on research, he simply assembled his notebooks for the reader to interpret.

Eventually, there’s even some real emotion: Vollmann’s anger at the San Diego Water Department for being “rudely unhelpful,” expressed in the acknowledgements. This is a tightly packed, 1,306-page treatise on a crucial part of California’s economy and culture; it’s just not organized in a particularly useful way.

On the other hand, Kevin Starr’s new book is hyperorganized. Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, is every bit as encyclopedic as Vollmann’s work. The eighth volume in the University of Southern California history prof’s mammoth study of the state, Golden Dreams concentrates on the post-war consumerist period, which included the birth of the burbs and the raising of the boomers. He organizes it like a textbook, which makes it easy to find the sections that are most interesting. For example, the chapter on San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and the development of the city’s identity makes the case for a certain self-consciousness of California as a trendsetter, which is still evident in our desire to be ahead of the curve (and shame when we aren’t).

Perhaps there’s something about the Golden State that doesn’t lend itself to lightweight analysis and requires instead a total immersion. Starr’s book lets us dive in; Vollman’s is more of a ramble about the surface.