When William T. Vollmann writes a new book – and, my goodness, they come quickly – the dilemma for a reviewer is always the same: whether to open by telling readers about the book itself, or whether to attempt a description of this remarkable, unpredictable, and, let's face, it, strange man.
Just a year ago, Vollmann's book "Poor People" appeared. To research that book, Vollmann, nearing age 50 but (judging from his author photograph) looking more like 30, traveled the world, asking down-and-out individuals, "Why are you poor?"
Before "Poor People," Vollmann published seven novels, including the hugely acclaimed "Europe Central," three volumes of short stories, and a range of nonfiction highlighted by the seven-volume scholarly treatise "Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means."
In a literary realm filled with talented writers who can be difficult to pigeonhole, Vollmann might qualify as the most difficult of all.
That's not intended as a backhanded compliment. Sometimes Vollmann's books fall short of greatness, but they never fall flat. He is always worth reading.
So what has he presented to us in 2008? Riding Toward Everywhere, 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 then there's another more obvious motive – to gathering material for a book. And yet "Riding Toward Everywhere" is definitely a labor of love. (In the acknowledgments section, Vollmann thanks his editor at Harper's magazine, "who actually gave me money for my train hopping, and who can beat that?")
Although Vollmann often hops trains alone, he is sometimes accompanied by strangers. They may be people with alternate comfortable lives like his own or they may be honest-to-goodness hobos who are otherwise homeless. Vollmann's most frequent companion is Steve, who, at 50, is not all that spry anymore. Steve has a regular home and family and wants to find his own Cold Mountain (although he does not adopt that term).
The book does not unfold according to any discernible logic. Some of the 12 chapters are themed, like the one about the rarity of women riding the rails ("Diesel Venus") or the one about the ugliness spawned by some racist hobos ("A Stick of Dynamite"). Most chapters contain surprises at the beginning, in the middle, at the end – or all three. Without warning, Vollmann might jump from the physical beauty or physical ugliness of the landscape as seen from a freight car to a learned lesson on the writings of Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain or Jack Kerouac.
And yet, despite the surface disorganization of the book, Vollmann never loses or confuses the reader. That is what talent of his magnitude can accomplish.
Granted, the 65 photographs he includes (some with fellow riders pictured, some of train yards showing no human life, among others) help give substance to Vollmann's sometimes ethereal language. But the book would stand on its own without photos.
What will probably stick in my mind months or years from now are tidbits that would be difficult to dig out except for Vollmann's practice of immersion journalism. Who but a train hopper would have known, for instance, that until recently freight cars were not walled off. As a result, an enterprising hobo who avoided the railroad police could slip into an open-rack carrier, and, in Vollmann's words, "climb into a brand new car, turn on the heater and radio, recline in the driver's seat and even turn on the windshield wipers just for laughs, getting drunk and gazing out at aspens at evening, grey ruffled lakes peering through a wall of slender-trunked trees at the cruel old mountains like strange blades cutting the greystone sky, snow-streaked below as he clitteryclattered across rich green and yellow delicate meadows, raising his fifth of whiskey to toast the gorgeous swellings of the trees that crawled up the bellies of three mountains...."
Granted, that particular passage might strike some as overwritten, but both the facts Vollmann presents and the sentiments he expresses are something to behold. Occasional exasperation with the author might result during a reading of "Riding Toward Everywhere." Boredom, however, is not an option.