The Bookworm: Riding Toward Everywhere

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann. 288 pages. Harper Perennial. 2008.

…I remember their opposites, the citizens about whom Thoreau sadly inquired: Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? My darling America has becomes a humpyard where cars and citizens can be nudged down the hill onto various classification tracks. I’ve got to get out of here.

It’s the Prairie Lights smelling book. Sadly, the lingering aroma of my favorite bookstore is the best thing about William T. Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere.

Riding Toward Everywhere is Vollmann’s attempt to connect his experience hopping freight trains and the vanishing hobo culture with the ever-tightening authoritative restrictions imposed on Americans by government and corporations. Referencing Thoreau, Wolfe, Kerouac, and Hemingway (see: I told you Hemingway is a God; the motherfucker is omnipresent), Vollmann also contemplates the locality of his Cold Mountain, a spiritual oasis from Chinese lore, as he rides in boxcars or on small platforms attached to grainers and takes in the beauty and unsightliness of America.

I didn’t know what to think of Riding while reading it. Parts were poignant and memorable — beautifully crafted and provocative — but there were whole sections when I had to force myself to finish each sentence and paragraph; the prose was thick and sluggish like molasses. Though Vollmann’s digressions seemed well wrought and propulsive, I couldn’t help but feel they were page filler, artistic ramblings. I know now it was disappointing.

Before Riding I had never heard of William T. Vollmann. My first thought was he’s a former hobo turned writer. Nope. It’s the other way around, sort of. Vollmann attended the exclusive Deep Springs College and is a Cornell University graduate. He is a well-traveled journalist who’s been published in Playboy, The New Yorker, and Harper’s. In 1982 he went to Afghanistan and traveled with the mujahideen, apparently for the hell of it, later publishing his experiences in An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World. In the late-‘80s he worked as a computer programmer despite having no background in the field, and wrote his first novel after hours on the office computers, hiding from the janitorial crew and subsisting on vending machine candy bars. He is in the process of writing a seven-novel series focusing on the settlement of North America, and in 2004 McSweeney’s published Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollmann’s 3,300 page, seven-volume tome on violence, based mostly on reporting he did in Cambodia, Somalia, and Iraq.

A novelist, essayist, and journalist he is; a hobo, transient, and someone who train hops out of necessity he is not. Vollmann rides freights for fun, because he needs to “get out of here.” This is what irked me personally. I never forgot the fact Vollmann is very secure financially; his Wikipedia profile mentions that last year he “was awarded a five year fellowship/grant from the Straus Living Award, that gives writers of note $50,000 a year, tax free.” Vollmann may have meant well, as all journalists do, but he comes off as a poser in Riding.

Though he does ride the rails, elude yard bulls, wait and wait and wait for the perfect train, and interact with real, hardcore hobos, Vollmann’s adventures feel inauthentic. At any point he can take out his credit card, eat a hot meal, sleep in a hotel, take a taxi to the airport, and fly home. He did that twice in Riding. While contemplating the reasons he prefers to “hunker grimy and thirsty in a boxcar” he writes “…at this moment I am sitting on the bullet train between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, rushing toward Everywhere on my laptop with a beer beside me.” I drew a line from that sentence to the bottom of the page where I wrote, “makes me think he’s a poser.”

Vollmann is a poser. He partakes in a kind of poverty tourism for catharsis: to escape the baseness of modern life and try recapturing the boundless and rebellious experiences of Dean Moriarty and Nick Adams, the characters of Kerouac and Hemingway. He finds the freedom he seeks, is able to avoid the intrusive authority of airports, but he’s disappointed because train hopping as he experienced it in 2006 is not how it was “back then.” Intrusive authority is to blame.

The book features 65 pictures taken by Vollmann. They’re quality pics, showcasing aspects of train hopping and the hobo culture: graffiti, trains, train yards, trackside debris, and the squalor of transient life. There are shameful, vacation-like pictures of Vollmann’s riding partner, and also photos of hobos Vollmann has met, most of which are featured in the text. He meets Sheldon under an overpass in Cheyenne when Vollmann and his buddy are trying to catch a train to Sacramento (they flew to Cheyenne and planned to ride home). In his pic, Sheldon is fingering the camera. The gesture is more playful than malicious in this instance, but I can’t help but think a lot of the genuine bo’s Vollmann met wanted him to fuck off. Though they come off as good buddies and long-time friends in the text, I don’t think they accepted Vollmann. He is a citizen, an outsider, and I think the connection was mostly journalistic in nature. They’re sources for him, recounting authentic accounts of the life, which he can’t experience for himself.

New word I learned: catching out. Again it’s a phrase, and a train hopping term at that. Catching out is the act of hopping on a train, literally catching the train out of town.

Pun intended, Riding is the first book I’ve railed on The Bookworm. One reviewer on Amazon titled his comments “Writing Toward Nowhere,” and I don’t disagree. However, I don’t want to give up on Vollmann. I want to check out his Afghanistan memoir.

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