An introspective, idiosyncratic tribute to train-hopping, replete with nods to Kerouac, Whitman, Hemingway, Twain, London and Thoreau.
Hyper-prolific novelist, short-story writer, essayist and journalist Vollmann (Europe Central, 2005, etc.) “catches out” freight trains, sometimes alone and sometimes with his nimble, chubby, middle-aged friend Steve. They evade railroad bulls in dreary train yards, often hunkering down in rainy darkness and drinking beer until they see their chance to climb aboard. Conformity, rules and regulations are clearly anathema to the author. He writes of his loathing for “the unfreedom that is creeping over America,” a place he likens to a railroad humpyard where “cars and citizens can be nudged down the hill onto various classification tracks.” Train-hopping is his response to the recurrent feeling, “I’ve got to get out of here.” It’s all about freedom, living more intensely and seeing things that he would never see otherwise. The landscapes and wildlife Vollmann glimpses along the way make this in some small sense a travelogue of the western states, but he has a much greater interest in human behavior. He explores hobo jungles and seeks out lifelong train-hoppers to interview, trying rather unsuccessfully to extract from them the truths of their sad, dangerous, lonely lives. More than 60 amateurish black-and-white snapshots by Vollmann capture trains, train yards, views from the open doors of freight cars, hobos and a distasteful assortment of graffiti, often hate-filled and featuring crude, sexually explicit drawings. Boarding a freight train with an unknown destination is a gamble, he writes, “much like life; you don’t know the future.”
Sometimes entertaining, sometimes annoying: an essay that takes the reader on a trip around the author’s psyche but otherwise seems to go nowhere.