Clueless first novel about the worst accident in Amtrak’s history.
In September 1993, a passenger train crossing a bridge over a bayou outside Mobile, Alabama, was derailed at night in thick fog, after a towboat and barges had knocked the bridge out of alignment; 42 passengers and five crew were killed. The author follows the train from its start in Los Angeles, but he also jumps forward frequently to 1998. Five years after the disaster, two men are still struggling to make sense of it. One is W.C. Odell, the towboat pilot; the other is Tommy Pedersen, ex-fireman. W.C. haunts the novel. Though apparently blameless, he has surrendered his pilot’s license and left his family to live hermit-like in the woods. Tommy, a rescue diver that dreadful night, is just as scarred; he too has left his job and family. Formichella entangles these two stories with those of Willie, W.C.’s grandson, and Michael Rogers, school truant officer, who gets more attention than either of the haunted men—and shouldn’t. The author’s touch isn’t any surer when it comes to the passengers. Foremost among them are Douglas, a handsome blond med-school graduate, and Christine, an innocent young computer scientist mulling over her first lesbian experience (on a different train). Maybe they’d have been a sleeping-car item if Douglas hadn’t been distracted by an ancient hypochondriac, one of Houston’s grande dames. Others on the train are barely introduced before their rendezvous with destiny. Formichella is a railroad buff, seemingly more comfortable with railroad lore than with the vagaries of human behavior; railroad history even intrudes into his lovers’ conversations between the sheets. He also flubs his account of the crash, splitting it into two sections, so that the story of Tommy’s rescue attempts are far removed from the fuller version, where Douglas dies in (yup) a heroic attempt to save Christine.
Makes you long for a no-nonsense nonfiction version of the events.