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Down and Out on the Union Pacific, or College Boy Meets the Hoboes: the pleasant, unassuming journal of a fledgling adventurer-anthropologist with a nearly terminal case of naivetÉ. Conover (Frederic King Conover III, Amherst '81) had taken a leave of absence from school to work for VISTA before deciding to hop freight trains and explore the subculture of vagrancy, but the mean streets of Dallas evidently didn't prepare him for the jolts he got while slumming around the West. Among his discoveries: that tramps would share his food but not theirs; that black hoboes might spurn him for being white; that one irreverent wino used pages from a pocket Bible to roll cigarettes; that an affable senior citizen could offer him money for a hand job; that a violently itching scalp meant you had lice; that the knights of the road were often hostile, thievish, brutal, and boring. Conover, then, is a sociological babe in the woods (""Hoboes seemed to say what they felt and do what they felt like doing""), and readers looking for an analytic insider's view of the hobo world would do better with Douglas Harper's Good Company (1982). But Conover's story has its moments. He's good at conveying the sights and sensations of a seedy, grimy, grungy life, of eating chicken scraps out of a Colonel Sanders' dumpster and drinking from a communal bottle of Thunderbird. Conover describes some painfully enlightening hours spent in a Denver jail (for demanding his rights from a nasty cop) and the flash of horror when he felt himself metamorphosing into a hardened bum. But he didn't, of course; after four months he left the dangers and occasional thrills (a breathtaking ride down the roadless Feather River Canyon) behind for the bourgeois decency he'd bailed out of. Conover comes home for Christmas and regales his family--and us--with this real-life Bildungsroman. An agreeable, innocuous effort.

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 1983
ISBN: 1587886758
Publisher: Viking