cover image Riding Toward Everywhere

Riding Toward Everywhere

William T. Vollmann, . . Ecco, $26.95 (200pp) ISBN 978-0-06-125675-2

In this sometimes heavy-handed though brief (especially for Vollmann) memoir of hopping trains and riding the rails, Vollmann, National Book Award winner for Europe Central, explores a personal and national obsession. “From a certain open boxcar in a freight train heading the wrong way,” he writes, “I have enjoyed pouring rain, then birds and frogs, fresh yellow-green wetness of fields.” Taking to the rails out West, Vollmann sometimes travels with buddies pursuing the same thrill, the same freedom people have long associated with railroads. Other times, he meets up with grizzled hobos and degenerates, reflecting on himself and his reasons for risking life and limb to see America from a speeding freight train. “Whatever beauty our railroad travels bestow upon us comes partly from the frequent lovely surprises of reality itself,” he says, “often from the intersection of our fantasies with our potentialities.” While he never really gets around to fully explaining his own reasons for doing so—he makes long, curlicue allusions to his restless soul and search for deeper meanings of things—Vollmann pieces together a kind of patchwork portrait of the lusts and longings of a nation torn by social inequity and riven with anger about the current state of affairs, especially but not limited to the war in Iraq and the ongoing sadness of American overseas misadventures. Through the self-indulgent mist, though, a sharper picture emerges. Vollmann captures an ongoing romantic vision of America—a nation always on the move, nervous and jittery, and never really satisfied with itself. (Jan.)