On the beaten track

Marc Weingarten is the author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote and the New Journalism Revolution."

As one of our more intrepid cultural interpreters, William T. Vollmann has traveled with the mujahedin in Afghanistan, smoked crack with hookers and camped out at the North Pole. So it’s not surprising to find him riding the rails. In “Riding Toward Everywhere,” an account of his adventures as a slumming hobo -- expanded from a January 2007 essay he wrote for Harper’s -- Vollmann improvises his way across the United States with a series of clandestine hitches courtesy of the transcontinental train system.

Nothing new, you say? As a vehicle for probing the dark underbelly of America, examining the virtuous souls of the underclass and any number of other hoary literary conceits, riding the rails is so 19th century. But Vollmann still finds some juice in the conceit, so much so that his literary gift propels this slender, elegantly written book along like a third rail. Only at the end, when the book turns as monotonous as the train rides themselves, does “Riding Toward Everywhere” peter out.

Vollmann thinks a lot about savagery and the human capacity for suffering. It’s a major preoccupation of his numerous novels and volumes of reportage, and this book carries the themes forward. The author, as he explains near the beginning, is a man given to frequent reflection -- even self-recrimination at times -- about his place in the world.


“All I know is that although I live a freer life than many people, I want to be freer still,” he writes. “I’m sometimes positively dazzled with longing for a better way of being.” I’m not sure what “dazzled with longing” feels like, but it sends him off to find satori hopping trains in rail yards in Sacramento, Seattle, Spokane, Wash., Cheyenne, Wyo., and elsewhere.

The book begins with some autobiographical musing, as Vollmann talks about his otherwise conservative father’s anti-authoritarian streak, which apparently has leaked into his own DNA. “As I get older, I find myself getting angrier and angrier” at his “increasingly un-American America,” he rages. What really upsets him is having to take his shoes off at the airport gate. But is that really evidence of rampant un-Americanism? As a polemic, “Riding Toward Everywhere” is shrill and unconvincing.

Fortunately, Vollmann’s rage only flits around the narrative’s margins. He’s much better when he sticks to the particulars of railroad life. Riding with his sturdy companion, Steve, the author searches for the scuzzy empyrean, the “somewhere” that lurks just around the next bend in the tracks. Here’s where Vollmann demonstrates his gift for writing about deprivation in lyrical prose. Waiting in the cold night for a train to hop, he revels in “a glimpse of an ancient Pullman car, as fabulous to us as a woolly mammoth, the sudden sweetness of breathing night air after a rest . . . every grainer car silhouetted itself in succession, stencil cuts of perfect beauty.”

The train tracks crisscross the country, delivering crucial goods and human cargo alike to most every state in the nation, yet they also support an underground world. Through his encounters with veteran train hoppers, Vollmann discovers a rich mythology, an oral history passed down through the years. In Spokane, he learns of the Freight Train Riders of America, a notorious gang that allegedly has terrorized train hoppers in heinous fashion. Everyone has a story about them, but they never materialize. It’s another “shadow show,” that strange, vestigial dimension of the hobo life that never quite reveals itself to Vollmann.

The author encounters his share of down-and-outers on the road. Badger, a wizened and self-possessed traveler whose beard makes him look as “lordly” as a “Biblical patriarch,” is seeking the woman who stole his dog -- she’s another in a long line of “Diesel Venus” sirens who leave broken hearts in their boot dust. Then there’s Pittsburgh Ed, who has been “catching out” trains since 1980, but the day-job market has dried up for him. Now he sells his blood for cash: “Cheap high, too. Straight out of the stab lab, suck down a mug of beer, and it goes right to your head!” Vollmann captures street cadence with perfect pitch.

As the author moves from west to east and back again, wandering the rails with no discernible destination, that old mystic’s saw about the journey becoming the destination comes to mind. This may well be the road to enlightenment, but as the train trips blend into one another they get a bit tedious in the retelling. One wonders whether Vollmann would have been better off sticking with the shorter essay.