two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Riding Towad EverywhereAt 47, a request for a divorce sent William T. Vollmann to the rails, where he "catches out" on a journey meant to be an anecdote to the "unfreedom that is creeping over America." The world of the hobo—the novice rider Vollmann refers to himself as a "fauxbeaux"—symbolizes both freedom and nostalgia for a world that may never have existed. On his travels in much of the West (the book contains 66 pages of photos), Vollmann meets the kinds of characters you might expect—witness Badger and Pittsburgh Ed, and the "Diesel Venuses," among others. Many of their stories evoke a bygone era; just as many hint at the desperation of such a peripatetic life. Vollmann’s conclusion grounds the shadowy, seductively romantic world of train hopping in an inevitable reality: "When you gamble on a freight train, it is so much like life: You don’t know the future."
Ecco. 271 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0061256757

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann is too smart by half to let riding the freights become an exercise in machismo. … [A]s Vollmann so ably renders in writing as pungent as diesel fumes, but a whole lot more bracing to absorb, the ‘myriad reversals of fortune and feeling’ that attend train hopping brings him to life, simplifying reality to make it more easily marveled." Peter Lewis

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann’s lyric prose manages to convey both the velocity of train travel and the intensity of the sensual experience, a jolting achievement in an era of ‘comfort travel’ that has sought mostly to annihilate our relationship with the landscape. … When you ride with him, a measure of glorification is included in the price of the ticket, and hardly diminishes the larger wonders of the trip." Steve Almond

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] highly personal, high-risk, all-over-the-place text about illegally hopping freight trains to travel up and down and across the United States for no discernible reason except perhaps the best reason of all—wanderlust, living free, looking for a dream place to inhabit that he calls ‘Cold Mountain. …’ And yet, despite the surface disorganization of the book, Vollmann never loses or confuses the reader." Steve Weinberg

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"Lyrical passages of plaintive beauty and sharp portraits of the hoboes infuse this book with Vollmann’s quiet power as a writer, but this is a diary, no more or less. We learn of his appetite for prostitutes (although he borrows cars, rather than use his own to pick up them), fondness for semi-automatic pistols and Jack Daniels for breakfast, and raw hatred of President Bush, but these and other elements don’t add up." Bob Hoover

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"As a polemic, Riding Toward Everywhere is shrill and unconvincing. … 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." Marc Weingarten

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann has shown himself in the past to be a beautiful stylist, but the prose here is surprisingly rough. … With no purpose, no destination, no story, his epic journey to Everywhere becomes a round trip to nowhere, and the reader, no matter how much he may admire Vollmann, can’t help feeling relieved when it’s time to hop off." J. R. Moehringer

Oregonian 1 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann isn’t the first rich guy to parade his exploitation of subcultures as Grand Revelations, and unfortunately he won’t be the last. … Call it what you want: class tourism, slumming or just plain self-indulgence—it is enough to make you gag." Rene Denfeld

Critical Summary

Vollmann has spent a good deal of time in some rough places—he made a reputation for his reporting from Bosnia and Afghanistan—and his talent as a writer is hardly disputable. A prolific fiction writer and essayist (Poor People, 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2007; Rising Up and Rising Down, 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004; Expelled from Eden; The Rainbow Stories), he won a National Book Award in 2005 for his novel Europe Central ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005). A chronicle of his adventures on the rails (the book is expanded from a 2007 piece for Harper’s), however, meets with less success. Although much of the book bears the unmistakable punch of Vollmann’s prose, critics comment on the graceless prose and the lack of continuity and aim in the narrative ("no purpose, no destination, no story," as the New York Times puts it). Still, Vollmann aficionados will find something here, even if first-timers might be better off picking up, say, Europe Central.