Riding Toward Everywhere, William T. Vollmann. Harper Perennial. 288pp, $14.99.
Riding Toward Everywhere, this year’s new book from the prolific William T. Vollmann, is a nonfiction account of his adventures hopping freight trains and trying out the hobo lifestyle as a person lurking “literally and figuratively in the shadows.” His traveling companion is a late middle-aged man named Steve who seems to have been riding the trains for “sport” (Vollmann’s term) since college. Steve is the “traincar-finder and [Vollmann] the people-pleaser.”
If you’re at all familiar with Vollmann’s work you know that he can talk to anyone about anything, and Steve usually opts to run to the liquor store while Vollmann stays behind and hangs out drinking with bums, of whom they only meet a few, treating them with his usual compassion and non-judgmental attitude. We get little information about Steve himself, though. Whether this was at Steve’s request is unclear, but what is clear is that he’s married, has kids, is an expert at the sport (or as close to an expert as one can be; Vollmann insists that no one is ever an expert at riding the rails), and often flies out of cities he’s found himself stuck in, and that he’s respectful of the boxcars and the trains, never urinating in them or leaving trash behind.
Vollmann wrote about trainhopping toward the end of his massive 2000 novel The Royal Family, and while these two texts are very dissimilar in their subject matter and narrative structure, Vollmann’s still working in his instantly-recognizable style: in one of his inimitable similes he tells us that “Tree silhouettes against white sky, pallid sky, dim grass, houselights, the tremendous clatter of existence, these things brought me happiness as crystal-clear as a vegetarian girl’s urine.” His writing style always reveals as much about himself as it does about his subjects, and something we learn about him from this work is that his father is very much against all of Vollmann’s travels—he doesn’t understand why he needed to go fight in Afghanistan (in An Afghanistan Picture Show), or went to the north magnetic pole (The Rifles), or why he now illegally boards trains for fun, for the sake of adventure.
In the beginning Vollmann thinks he’s going to have wild adventures, as he sees signs pointing to a mysterious trainhopping hobo gang known as the FTRA, a gang very psychotic and violent according to the rumors he hears from the few people he comes across willing to talk about them. (We learn that the gang is the Freight Train Riders of America, and people are very afraid of them.) He sees their graffiti amongst hobo tags, racist slogans, and depictions of female anatomy that decorate the walls of the boxcars and the areas where he and Steve hide to wait for trains to come. He’s expecting some element of danger, but he never quite finds it and is somewhat disappointed, as he recounts late in the book:
I had expected my travels to be picaresque, teeming with wise, bizarre or menacing outlaw characters. At the very least, I had imagined that without really trying I would meet dozens of people of Pittsburgh Ed’s sterling caliber. In fact my various odysseys were haunted by absence, with only here and there a few lost voices such as Cinders’s or Ed’s singing about the way things used to be back then, as if they were crickets who had inexplicably outlived their summer.
This disappointment is an encapsulation of his resounding disenchantment with the direction America is moving under George W. Bush, a direction he equates with an increase in airport security wherein one is expected to prove that one’s “American enough” to fly. All this is paralleled with a decline in hoboes hopping freight trains, something which Vollmann clearly sees as a mythic American activity akin to Johnny Appleseed and baseball.
It’s a parallel which only really starts coming together late in a book that Vollmann himself seems to have little faith in; as he says, “My critique of American society remains fundamentally incoherent,” and “If I make this point too often for your taste, I apologize; this book has few points to make.” In fact, this book, like riding the rails, seems to have no real point other than the doing/writing/reading it; or as Vollmann says, “Above all, how luxurious it is to travel I care not where for no good reason!” Vollmann often chooses destinations based on the fact that he has no reason whatsoever to go there, and sums up the thrill and excitement of hopping freight trains thusly: “When I hitchhike, I experience the same feeling.”
Riding Toward Everywhere isn’t Vollmann’s best book, partially because of the lack of “wise, bizarre, or menacing outlaw characters” and picaresque travels, and partially because, although nothing terribly much happens in the book, we’re left with a lot that’s unexplored: What does Steve do for a living? How is he able to reconcile this hobby with his normal life? How did Steve and Vollmann meet? What do the different types of train cars look like? How do you use a railroad spike to hold the doors open? What about the hobo tags? What do they mean?1
It seems that a lot of the basic terms and practices of riding the rails were taken for granted, and despite being given the usual-for-Vollmann sixty pages of sources and photographs, there’s no glossary. The book’s easy enough to follow, and it’s not like it’s written in jargon, but I think a few of these basic clues for the reader—like a diagram of each type of train car—would have proven useful for us non-trainhoppers.
More than anything though, the book’s just not terribly interesting. It’s well-written but it feels like Vollmann has some difficulty communicating what must be the sheer excitement of trainhopping. In Rising Up and Rising Down, or even in fictional works like Whores for Gloria, Argall, or the aforementioned The Royal Family, there’s a sense of urgency that comes across in Vollmann’s love and passion for his subjects that’s absent from this book. The photographs in the back are lovely, and there are a lot of them (the photos and back matter comprise a quarter of the book), but they might have been more helpful interspersed throughout the text (like in Rising Up and Rising Down) than collected in the back. Riding Toward Everywhere is a pretty book, but with not a lot going on narratively, it’s one of Vollmann’s minor works.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a frequent contributor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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