Arelentlessly curious, endlessly sensitive, and unequivocally adventurous examiner of human existence, William T. Vollmann now takes to the rails. In the company of experienced fellow train-hopper Steve, Vollmann trawls the secretive waters of a unique underground lifestyle—subjecting both our national romance with and skepticism about the hobo life to his finely tuned, analytical eye. Carrying on in the footloose tradition of Huckleberry Finn, he offers a moving, strikingly modern vision of the American dream, brilliantly exploring both our deeply ingrained romanticizing of "freedom" and the myriad ways we restrict the very freedoms we profess to admire.
About the Author
William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.
Date of Birth:July 28, 1959
Place of Birth:Santa Monica, California
Education:Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University
Read an Excerpt
Riding Toward Everywhere
A Short Essay on Freight Trains
I am my father's son. On a recent Christmas, in the bakery which not only is the best in town but never forgets it, we were waiting to pick up our pie, and my father came to my side to chat with me. One of the highest sugar-and-butter arbiters, who puts the public in its place even in seasons when it cannot overwhelm her, commanded: Sir, you need to stop blocking the line right now!—My father turned to me and remarked conversationally: Give some people a little power and they turn into Nazis, don't they?
My father grew up in an era when to be an American—a white American, at least—was to be yourself. In some respects his generation was more ignorant, complacent, self-centered and parochial than mine. For better and for worse, it actually believed in progress, which is to say that it was also more sure of itself, comparatively self-reliant and accordingly less corrupted by toadying—more American in the best sense. My grandfather's time must have been even more individualistic. With his by-Gods and goddamns, my grandfather laid down opinions without great reverence for the judgments of others. —I just don't know, Bill, he said once at a museum exhibit on the history of female suffrage. Maybe we shouldn't have given women the vote. What do you think? —And he got his reward: glares of hatred and outrage from all ladies present. —Does contrarianism equal freedom of thought? I prefer my grandfather's abrasive and frequently tedious self-assertion to my neighbors' equivalently wrongheaded chorus. But should Ilabel him any the less conformist? He once told me that if I had been his son he would have beaten my differentness out of me. It was his faith that American authority could do no wrong, in evidence of which I quote one of his pronouncements: You know what burns me up? All those rioters complaining about the police trampling on their rights! Don't they get it? When there's a riot, those sons of bitches have no rights! —As for my father, his epoch was the heyday of the Organization Man, and he respected rules, hierarchies and technocratic methods more than he knew; he simply happened to be good enough to make some of the rules. I once asked him why he wore a suit every working day, and he replied that one picks one's battles and he had more interesting battles to fight than dress code skirmishes. He was right. When I need to meet somebody important in Japan, I wear my suit. It is probable that my father enjoys his suits more than I do. In any event, fortified by them he looked factory managers in the eye and told them exactly where they were screwing up. —Weren't you just a little hard on those guys? an Associate Vice-President inquired—an accolade my father reported with glee. He taught his students without fear or favor, never missing a lecture in all the decades of his career. He worked hard, lived the life he chose, and said precisely what he thought. On his desk lay a paperweight engraved with his favorite motto: Bullshit Baffles Brains.
I am my father's son, which is to say that I am not exactly my father. In some ways I am shyer than he, in others more extreme and bold. My father believes that drugs should be legalized, regulated and taxed. So do I. My father has never sampled a controlled substance and never will. I've proudly committed every victimless crime that I can think of. My father actively does not want to know which acts I have performed and with whom.
I still go to the bakery my father hates, and the woman who told my father to get back in line nods at me. My father will never go back there. Perhaps if I were more my father's son I wouldn't patronize the place, either. But I am less proud than he, more submissive—or maybe more indifferent.
I work hard, make money, not as effectively as my father did but well enough to get by. I say what I think, and sometimes get a reward surpassing my grandfather's: death threats. So far, I've never missed a deadline for a term paper, a review, a manuscript. I perform the mumbo-jumbo of voting with belief in my heart, I've not yet won even a jaywalking ticket, and unlike my father, whom I fault in this respect, I refrain from opting out of jury duty; instead, they mostly kick me out.
My father hates organized religion, probably because he hates the God who killed his little girl back in 1968. I find religions variously bemusing. My father likes nice cars and is a sucker for the latest gadget. I enjoy the few mechanical devices which are simple enough for me to understand, such as semiautomatic pistols. My father hunted in his youth and still occasionally shoots handguns with me, but has come to disapprove of civilian firearms ownership, an attitude which disappoints me. He has voted Republican most of his life, but he and I agree in hating the current President.
My father has lived in Europe for many years. I am not sure that he realizes how much his native country has changed. People don't dare anymore to talk back the way he used to.
As I get older, I find myself getting angrier and angrier. Doubtless change itself, not to mention physical decline and inevitable petty tragedies of disappointed expectations, would have made for resentment in any event; but I used to be a passive schoolboy, my negative impulses turned obediently inward. Now I gaze around this increasingly un-American America of mine, and I rage.
So many of these developments are well-meaning. Children must buckle up in the school buses, and, speaking of children, I had better not enter into conversation with a child I don't know, in case the parents brand me . . .Riding Toward Everywhere. Copyright © by William Vollmann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of ContentsA Short Essay on Freight Trains 1
So Quiet and Smooth and Lovely 51
A Tawny Coyote Looked at Us 55
I Think We're in Switzerland, Cat 95
Back Then 117
I've Got to Get Out of Here 119
Diesel Venus 125
A Stick of Dynamite 139
A Cold Sun Crawled Silently 151
Grainer Astronomy 155
Lost and Found 177
Exploding Off the Wall 187
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I heard about this book from an interview with Vollmann. His description of the view framed by a boxcar opening reminded me of Jack London and Kerouac. I guess I had more expectations for the book because I was left unsatisfied. The romanticism of trainhopping was replaced by the reality of the hard lives of the people who don't do in voluntarily.What saved the book from getting 2 stars is the collection of photos at the end of it. It was worth waiting for. I recommend that you try to resist the urge to jump forward.
As much as the reader may sense how glorious riding the rails, catching out on a freight train may be to William T. Vollmann, somehow he fails to really ignite the same awe and wonder in us. In me, at any rate. Frankly, the book is a rather ornery mess, sort of like a¿..well, like a train wreck. It¿s all over the lot, er, yard. Many of the times that Vollmann and his pal Steve hop a train, they don¿t know where they¿re going - except to the mythical ¿everywhere¿. His writing resembles that lack of destination.Vollmann is really at his best here, when he¿s quoting Kerouac, or Jack London, or Thoreau. That¿s not enough to keep a good level of interest. Even the sixty or so black and white photographs that are placed at the rear of the book are mostly mediocre. What a disappointment.It¿s clear that Vollmann is deeply troubled about the state and status of personal freedom in America. But we knew that. This book, sadly, adds nothing to our understanding.
Snapshots of a vanishing culture, written in a companionable Vollmann style. No writer is better at observing the world and conveying a perspective that is uniquely his own. But, the rants about airport security are silly and they read like any number of cranky letters to the local newspaper. The freedom Vollmann enjoys going everywhere doesn't have much to do with these impositions at the airport. I get his point, I suppose, but its certainly not the best contrast for the kind of freedom he is writing about. Furthermore, he confuses freedom and transgression. The problem-solving required to catch out, the uncertainty of success and the frisson provided by evading railroad bulls are the most substantial parts of his thrill and they are what heighten the rest of the experience. Otherwise, its just riding and looking at scenery. You could do that on the bus. Freedom and transgression are related, but they are also at odds. I'm pretty sure Vollmann wouldn't like a world without bulls any more than he'd like a world without poor people.