Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Off the beaten track: Riding Toward Everywhere

I live near train tracks. I hear them mostly late at night, when aching dreams of escape are given freer reign. I love trains with a childish awe, but the tracks have been made absurdly inaccessible, the fencing around them formidable. You cross over or under these fortressed tracks and the passing trains seem like some disorderly mirage, the poltergeist of some rumbling, colossal, transient machine from the distant past. It makes you wonder: do people still hitch rides on these beasts? Paying passengers hardly even use them anymore. What ever happened to that most glorious of victimless crimes, freight hopping?

William T. Vollmann has asked similar questions, but unlike me –unlike most of us these days– he’s taken it upon himself to answer them through first-hand investigation. Though he’s pushing 50 and still recovering from pelvic surgery and some minor strokes, Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco, $31.95) finds Vollmann packing up his orange bucket and backpack, dragging along a friend or two, and riding the rails. The numbers of fellow travelers he encounters have diminished since the days of Jack London or Thomas Wolfe, or even Jack Kerouac, three among the many American writers he cites and forges a literary dialogue across the ages with here. But most of those who still practice this particular form of wandering are prompted by the same thing most trainhoppers have always been prompted by: need, desperation, lack of opportunity, poverty. Vollmann, as he makes clear right from the start, suffers from at most one of these ailments. He’s not a hobo but, as he puts it, a fauxbeau, a dilettante who when he desires need only wait for the train to slow or stop, jump off, and find himself a warm bed and a hot meal.

“Contempt for my privileged railroad follies may or may not be warranted,” Vollmann writes. “The question is what I make of them.” He points out that even Thoreau had a safety net to rescue him from any genuine peril during his submergence into Walden’s wilderness –but does that make his observations of the life left behind and the one adopted in exchange any less resonant? Vollmann’s reasons for trainhopping are many. His interest in those who live outside the dictates of the approved (if difficult to acquire) state of prosperity and ambition have informed much of his previous work, his travels to Afghanistan and the Arctic, and most notably his recent book Poor People. Much of this new book is indeed concerned with those he meets and learns from during his travels, as well as the graffiti they leave behind as traces of their vagabond musings, their frustrations and madness. But for all that, what seems to bring Vollmann to the rails is finally a much baser, more personal urge: to get out of Here -wherever Here may be– and find Everywhere.

“The lives I could have lived or at least imaged living teased me,” Vollmann writes at one point while gazing out from his perch on the iron horse, and elsewhere: “how luxurious it is to travel I care not where for no good reason!” Vollmann is a divorced parent, a man who confesses to finding his inner rage growing with age, who doesn’t own a cell phone or a credit card, who’s sick with anger over the direction his country has been taking in this new century of increasingly compromised liberties. He is a great, persuasive believer in civil disobedience. Though much older and much more practical than the likes of say, Chris McCandless, Vollmann needs to flee the grid, at least for a time. (Who doesn’t?) Vollmann searches for the same thing most artists or anyone with a wandering spirit seeks: the epiphanies granted by freedom. Why else do so many of the book’s evocative accompanying photographs feature open doors looking out on the fragmentary promise of some thrilling expanse?

Admittedly, as Riding Toward Everywhere chugs along it does get repetitive, its romantic viewpoint and Zen laughter a little hackneyed, and sometimes its existential questions begin to feel generic. Vollmann often asks what’s wrong with aimlessness, and at times the shapelessness of this book answers him back loud and clear. But Vollmann never goes too long without bringing his ramshackle narrative back to deeper, more specific questions about identity, nomadism, solitude, solidarity, and being lost in life. What works best for me here is the first essay in particular, in which Vollmann writes a great deal about his father, all the ways in which their lives, their choices and their politics conflict. But for all their differences Vollmann clearly admires his father and recognizes how much their perspectives have to do with the eras in which they reached manhood and the idea of American life that seemed possible during these times. And in one of the most touching moments in Riding Toward Everywhere Vollmann dreams that his father is riding the rails with him. In this dream Vollmann’s train crosses not only space but time, taking him through an emotional detour as revealing of his truest longings as other parts of Riding Toward Everywhere reveal Vollmann’s most fundamental flaws. Put together all of these aspects might tucker you out, but I think you’ll still be glad for taking the journey.

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