From Publishers Weekly
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.
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Vollmann has spent a good deal of time in some rough placesâ"he made a reputation for his reporting from Bosnia and Afghanistanâ"and his talent as a writer is hardly disputable. A prolific fiction writer and essayist (Poor People, *** May/June 2007; Rising Up and Rising Down, **** Mar/Apr 2004; Expelled from Eden; The Rainbow Stories), he won a National Book Award in 2005 for his novel Europe Central (***1/2 July/Aug 2005). A chronicle of his adventures on the rails (the book is expanded from a 2007 piece for Harperâs), however, meets with less success. Although much of the book bears the unmistakable punch of Vollmannâs prose, critics comment on the graceless prose and the lack of continuity and aim in the narrative (âno purpose, no destination, no story,â 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.
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