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Riding Toward Everywhereby William T. Vollmann
Synopses & Reviews
Vollmann is a relentlessly curious, endlessly sensitive, and unequivocally adventurous examiner of human existence. He has investigated the causes and symptoms of humanity's obsession with violence (Rising Up and Rising Down), taken a personal look into the hearts and minds of the world's poorest inhabitants (Poor People), and now turns his attentions to America itself, to our romanticizing of "freedom" and the ways in which we restrict the very freedoms we profess to admire.
For Riding Toward Everywhere, Vollmann himself takes to the rails. His main accomplice is Steve, a captivating fellow trainhopper who expertly accompanies him through the secretive waters of this particular way of life. Vollmann describes the thrill and terror of lying in a trainyard in the dark, avoiding the flickering flashlights of the railroad bulls; the shockingly, gorgeously wild scenery of the American West as seen from a grainer platform; the complicated considerations involved in trying to hop on and off a moving train. It's a dangerous, thrilling, evocative examination of this underground lifestyle, and it is, without a doubt, one of Vollmann's most hauntingly beautiful narratives.
Questioning anything and everything, subjecting both our national romance and our skepticism about hobo life to his finely tuned, analytical eye and the reality of what he actually sees, Vollmann carries on in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, providing a moving portrait of this strikingly modern vision of the American dream.
"In this sometimes heavy-handed though brief (especially for Vollmann) memoir of hopping trains and riding the rails, Vollmann, National Book Award winner for Europe Central, explores a personal and national obsession. 'From a certain open boxcar in a freight train heading the wrong way,' he writes, 'I have enjoyed pouring rain, then birds and frogs, fresh yellow-green wetness of fields.' Taking to the rails out West, Vollmann sometimes travels with buddies pursuing the same thrill, the same freedom people have long associated with railroads. Other times, he meets up with grizzled hobos and degenerates, reflecting on himself and his reasons for risking life and limb to see America from a speeding freight train. 'Whatever beauty our railroad travels bestow upon us comes partly from the frequent lovely surprises of reality itself,' he says, 'often from the intersection of our fantasies with our potentialities.' While he never really gets around to fully explaining his own reasons for doing so — he makes long, curlicue allusions to his restless soul and search for deeper meanings of things — Vollmann pieces together a kind of patchwork portrait of the lusts and longings of a nation torn by social inequity and riven with anger about the current state of affairs, especially but not limited to the war in Iraq and the ongoing sadness of American overseas misadventures. Through the self-indulgent mist, though, a sharper picture emerges. Vollmann captures an ongoing romantic vision of America — a nation always on the move, nervous and jittery, and never really satisfied with itself." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, 'Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,' runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he's been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I've never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn't seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don't have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don't care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don't know. In this modest little volume, Vollmann recounts several adventures riding American freight cars, or 'catching out,' in the company of a pleasant pal named Steve. Steve is 50, and in photographs included here he looks like a nice, relaxed decent middle-aged guy, the very opposite of a hotshot adventurer. Vollmann tells us that he himself is in his late 40s, that he's suffered a series of small strokes and his balance is bad. In other words, he's in the delicate border country just this side of geezerhood. Hopping a freight train is no longer easy. That's probably why he does it. He's in search of authenticity. And for all the length and tenacity and even exoticism of his earlier work, he's a true-blue, understandable American of the nonconformist variety. He remembers, early on, a girlfriend who, exasperated by his purity and contrarianism, urged him to 'play the game a little,' and there we go right back to James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, that literary hero of the '20s who was urged to conform by his lady love but refused, because what else did he have but his integrity, his authenticity, his own pure self? And by the end, when Vollmann admonishes us to remember what Thoreau said — 'If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes' — we get the picture. Vollmann doesn't drive a car. He won't use a credit card. He won't own a cell phone. He antagonizes airplane security guys so they always search him. He won't 'play the game a little.' (It's so endearingly American. I remember my beloved ex-husband, who was so offended by a loaf of processed white bread that I bought for the kids' school sandwiches that he hung it outside the kitchen window by a rope.) So Vollmann is trying to get to a place that is real. To his way of thinking, riding in a freight car with your legs dangling over the side and the wind, rain, fog, sleet or sunshine assaulting your body is more 'real' than driving around in a car with air conditioning. The hobos camped under overpasses or by the sides of tracks with cardboard for beds are more 'real' than the bozos who get up in the morning, stop by a McDonald's and head off to mind-numbing jobs. All that may be true, of course. Especially in our increasingly materialistic country, which jams products down our throats while picking our pockets of personal freedoms. Vollmann's political views are stated plainly here. 'My father,' he writes, 'I am sorry to say, now believes that I should cool it. (I've told you that he and I both hate the President. But I would like to see the President in prison.)' These positions are easy to take. Knowing what you don't like is easy. Credit cards, processed white bread and the president are easy to deplore. But what is it that you want? Where's the 'out,' when you're 'catching out'? That's where Vollmann's book becomes plaintive and interesting. He quotes extensively from Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms,' in which the beleaguered couple enjoy just a fleeting amount of bliss before Catherine dies in childbirth. He invokes the Michigan woods of the Nick Adams stories. He names this elusive place of moral, spiritual bliss 'Cold Mountain' and admits, I think, that you can never get there because once you're there, it's changed. (James Jones, in 'From Here to Eternity,' likened this condition to being locked in a phone booth. The world, in its ineffable glory, is out there; you can glimpse it, but you can't get to it.) What if Cold Mountain is only to be found in what one of Vollmann's comrades of the road calls 'Back Then'? If it's in the past, then you really can't get to it. Meanwhile, these two grown men pack little lunches, skulk around rail yards, try to 'catch out' and sometimes do. They suffer discomfort. They really aren't the same kind of guys as Badger, Sheldon and Pittsburgh Ed, who show up in the photos. They don't go very far on these trains and sometimes take regular passenger trains home. They do 'play the game a little.' That's the human condition. But they give it their best shot, and that's the human condition, too. I can imagine Vollmann sassing airline security people when he's 100, yanking out his dentures for inspection. Drooling for effect, and giving a big toothless grin. Did I mention that years ago he enlivened an otherwise pedestrian Los Angeles book signing by backing two separate women into the storeroom and giving them each a big French kiss? Looking for Cold Mountain, no doubt." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Vollmann captures an ongoing romantic vision of America — a nation always on the move, nervous and jittery, and never really satisfied with itself." School Library Journal
"Sometimes entertaining, sometimes annoying: an essay that takes the reader on a trip around the author's psyche." Kirkus Reviews
Book News Annotation:
Hopping freights is only a frame on which novelist/essayist/journalist Vollmann (Poor People, Europe Central) hangs his witty, wicked observations of the vile state of our government (Bush especially), our society, and religion. The book includes 65 gritty b&w photos. A good read. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.
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