The Rainbow Stories," Vollmann paid prostitutes for their stories; in "Poor People," same for that group, across the world. So, this third investigation into how the other half (or more) lives "catching out" on the rails promises an intriguing journey. Some of the best moments in his novel "The Royal Family" were at the last tenth, when the protagonist leaves San Francisco and Sacramento (Vollmann's own residences) for taking the train all over. How does this non-fiction excursion pan out?
The best part is the first fifty pages. This is re-arranged from a Harper's Magazine piece, and benefits from cohesion, even it it sprawls in typical fashion for this author who tends to write big books. This one's comparatively brief, and it appears as if from the opening chapter, it's on target, matching author (who keeps lamenting as he's back in California that "I've got to get out of here") with a subject where he incorporates Kerouac, Twain, Thoreau, Hemingway, London, and Thomas Wolfe. But like the last-named predecessor, he rambles.
"All the waiting, that living-fieldmouse smell in the grass, was a necessary part of our experience, because it transformed motion into salvation. When I hitchhike, I experience the same feeling. And I wonder whether life can be good without the hard times." (19) But, "riding the rails, like any attempt to escape from life, must taste of failure now and then unless one is willing to die." (22) A middle-aged Vollmann will not die, of course, writing this, and he often laments his slowness compared to his buddies. One expects after the start of this adventure a lot more stories about who he meets, but as he admits very late in the narrative, "absence" dominates. It seems few hobos exist now, compared to decades ago; survivors lay low, resist intrusion, and resent "citizens" such as Vollmann.
His inquiries tend to meet with terse replies, and few stories emerge from his informants to entertain. So, he resorts to citing the authors mentioned above, or telling related stories of loneliness such as the best one, when he must kill a fieldmouse in a deserted cabin in the desert. He evokes the necessity to protect his daughter from infection and the divided loyalty between compassion and action vividly.
"I go my own bumbling way, alone or in company, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there." (73) He admits this in Wyoming and while that vast state seems to beckon, he reveals few moments why or how, and he tends in uncharacteristic fashion to gloss past much that may have happened, perhaps as it's so mundane. But we may raise questions we expect answered. Is it difficult to board a train in motion? If so, how it is done, and what is the best way to leap off, and when? How hard is it to sit for so long in a boxcar vs. a grainer, and feel the bumps and grinds of the tracks and rail cars? What happened when people on the trains shared stories, or shut up? How much did he carry along with his orange bucket? Even accounting for boredom surely novelty happened.
Still, no Vollmann book (and I have by now reviewed nearly all, including the ones listed above) is without value. "My darling America has become a humpyard where cars and citizens can be nudged down the hill onto various classification tracks. I've got to get out of here." (180) As he admits with the government trailing him and how since this 2008 book he has published on the Fed surveillance of himself, he tends to live largely off-grid if in the heart of Sacramento. So, he already has separated himself, as with his father--whose treatment at the hands of an officious bakery clerk he recounts in the first paragraph presciently--from much which pursues those of us who choose to live among officials and paid employees who try to restrict our liberty in the name of efficiency and conformity as the security state grows. This lesson, beneath the rather mundane situations which surprisingly fill much of this travelogue, assure that its core truths remain relevant. (8-12-14 to Amazon US)