Easy rider

William Vollmann meditates on the freedom and beauty of the train-hopping life

A photo taken by Vollmann - one of 65 that appear at the end of the book - from a boxcar during a stop between San Luis Obispo and Oakland, 2005. A photo taken by Vollmann - one of 65 that appear at the end of the book - from a boxcar during a stop between San Luis Obispo and Oakland, 2005. ("Riding Toward Everywhere")
Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Almond
February 17, 2008

Riding Toward Everywhere
By William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 206 pp., illustrated, $26.95

To the honorifics William Vollmann has gathered during his meteoric career, we may now add one more: creator of an entirely new genre. His new book, "Riding Toward Everywhere," is the first recorded example of Transcendental Hoboism. There's no other way to describe this brief and fevered paean to the joys of American nomadism, by way of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Vollmann has long devoted himself to recording the lives of the disenfranchised. In "The Rainbow Stories" (1992) he revealed a fascination with prostitutes that would fuel three more books. Last year saw the release of "Poor People," his massive personal survey of the planet's underclass.

His ambitions here are more humble: a series of digressive essays about his addiction to jumping freight trains. Vollmann and his favorite traveling companion, a droll and unretiring fellow named Steve, are self-described "fauxbeaux." They don't have to ride the rails; they choose to.

Vollmann frames his journeys as a personal response to "the unfreedom that is creeping over America," though the disappointments of his personal life grease the wheels as well. It's no coincidence that he responds to his wife's request for a divorce by heading to the local train yard.

For the most part, he's drawn by the thrill of the ride: "We rushed on. A flare of evening sun in the Gabilan Range (pink chalcedony), the white loveliness of rainbirds blowing spray in elongated flower petals, the Sierra de Salinas to the west, the leaden darkness of a lettuce field, all these perceptions granted to me right next to the freeway became my loveliest treasures which I hope to hoard right up to the cemetery lights amidst the last golden-green of the fields."

Vollmann's lyric prose manages to convey both the velocity of train travel and the intensity of the sensual experience, a jolting achievement in an era of "comfort travel" that has sought mostly to annihilate our relationship with the landscape. "We passed our hotel," he writes, a bit later. "There came a crossing, and Cheyenne reached vainly after us with her last streets. We stayed low. Then there was nothing beside us but grass and highway." And still later, "I know very well that the Barstow yard, seen from above on a desert night, shows its row after row of lights to advantage, like a beautiful woman smiling with all her teeth."

These visions - "a corduroy sky of slanting rain," a seashore "scalloped into terraces by the recent flood" - are the essential recompense Vollmann seeks for the peril of hopping trains, and the book's most dependable pleasure.

He also spends a lot of time trying to define himself in the literary pantheon. "Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac's road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London's freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain's riverboat define me," Vollmann tells us. "I go my own bumbling way."

This is not entirely true. Vollmann owes a good deal of his peculiar fulminations to these forebears. Nor is his approach entirely bumbling. He organizes the book into sections that amount to loose meditations - on female travelers, hobo graffiti, and the escapist mind-set that drives normal citizens to become peripatetic outlaws. (The book also includes an appendix of photos taken during his rides, one that I found much less evocative than his descriptions.)

If there's one area where Vollmann's account rings false, it's his romanticization of hobos - a tendency he recognizes but still manages to indulge. "For among the equipment of us adventurers who've ridden the iron horse bareback," he observes, "[are] very commonly to be found my father's three best qualities: courage, generosity and integrity."

Based on the interviews Vollmann collects (and occasionally pays for), the folks who haunt the rails don't sound like noble rebels so much as deeply damaged people: drug addicted, violent, ultimately tragic.

As Vollmann himself admits, he's slumming here, glorifying the beauty he finds, but always with the assurance that he can return to a warm bed. It's an occupational hazard for a guy who specializes in the ethnography of the squalid. But it's still unsettling.

Vollmann does a lot of complaining, for instance, about the erosion of civil liberties in the last few years. "It is the security men," he writes, "the necessary evils who make each succeeding year of my life more unfree than the one before, these are the ones whom I hate and fear."

But the wealthy have always dominated the poor and found ways to control them. The "security men" whom Vollmann vilifies are merely pawns in a much larger class struggle. They don't make the rules, they enforce them, generally so they can feed their families.

Vollmann's style also veers into the florid on occasion. He makes hopping a train sound like an exalted existential solution: "I felt as if every possibility were offering itself through the doorway, but without Mephistophelean trickery. The infinities available to me paraded as beguilingly as clock-figures on a medieval church tower." There's a certain frisson to treating a low-culture subject with such erudition. Still, overwriting is overwriting. When Vollman describes his happiness as "crystal-clear as a vegetarian girl's urine," his own poetic efforts distract us from the vivid world in which he's immersed.

But this, too, is an occupational hazard for Vollmann. He is a voracious writer who supplies his abiding motto early on: "I never want not to feel." When you ride with him, a measure of glorification is included in the price of the ticket, and hardly diminishes the larger wonders of the trip.

Steve Almond's new essay collection is "(Not That You Asked)."

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