- File Size: 1284 KB
- Print Length: 402 pages
- Publisher: The Olney Press; 2 edition (January 2, 2017)
- Publication Date: January 2, 2017
- Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B01N0XD1XT
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,028,653 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Railroad Train to Heaven: Volume One of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel Kindle Edition
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Identifying the primary cause of the effed-upedness of the era is a piece of cake (or perhaps a bite of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet) while defining “Railroad Train to Heaven” is a good deal more challenging: It is a coming-of-age novel not unlike “Catcher in the Rye,” although Arnold is 42 years old. It has the elements the best pulp of L. Sprague de Camp. The descriptive richness of Marcel Proust. The open tap consciousness of Jack Kerouac. The whimsy of Terry Pratchett. A dollop of Philip K. Dick. Yet it is original.
“Railroad Train to Heaven” is the first volume of excerpts from Schnabel's sprawling memoir, which he wrote in small copybooks. It opens in the summer of 1963 with Arnold on indefinite leave from the Reading Railroad and recovering from a mental breakdown in the guest house of his three maiden aunts down the shore (as they say in Philly) in the Victorian town of Cape May, New Jersey. Home is the rowhouse neighborhood of Olney in Philadelphia's Near Northeast (a geographic designation long out of vogue) where he lives with his widowed mother and has worked as a brakeman for the Reading since age seventeen. He is an appropriately guilt-burdened Catholic, usher at St. Helena's R.C. Church, ever the gentleman while socially inept, utterly inexperienced in love if not lust, and enjoys writing lyric poetry and drinking Manhattan cocktails and Schaefer's beer.
Familiarly if obscurely known as the Rhyming Brakeman, Arnold has been contributing a small masterpiece of poetry a week (self described as touching on "the ordinary life of ordinary people") to the estimable Olney Times for decades. Ensconced in Cape May, he falls in love for the first time and careens into a series of sometimes hallucinatory experiences with people ordinary and famous, not to mention the ever-in-need-of-a-light Jesus. Space and time are delightfully altered, but Arnold still dutifully submits a poem each week no matter how warped the contours of not his exactly Boswellian life have become.
Beyond the effed-upedness of the real world, literature today is typically much too derivative. But “Railroad Train to Heaven” is very, very good. It is truly original, and like great literature, its seemingly simple, laugh-out-loud narrative belies deeper meanings lurking just below the surface of Arnold's fantastical experiences. Dan Leo promises additional volumes. Arnold never exaggerated, so I have to believe him
So what could be bad? Well, for a first time author who's prose is this breezy and storytelling this effortlessly structured, it might be easy for some to take the author's virtuosity for granted. There's a kind of familiarity here that draws one into the world Leo creates - like a brand new guitar riff that goes up your spine when you first hear it; new but somehow recognizable and friendly. Leo is a friendly author. He writes simple, easy to read sentences that float into the mind's eye and stay there, simple and clear. Which is quite a trick since his character, Arnold, is, at heart, a poet, who's sensibility is reflected in the ironic, often whimsical, and always brutally honest way the character connects all the dots, describing with his unique voice the inhabited spaces he moves through. Indeed, Arnold's point of view often spirals and zigzags as unconscious associations take hold of his imagination. The entire book feels like a conversation, spontaneously flowing, structured by happenstance and coincidence. What's real and not doesn't matter because Arnold's voice carries us where it will. What's remarkable, though, is how the character's thoughts fly around, while the novel itself remains at all times balanced and linear. It's like we're headed in two places at the same time; the real world and the poet's perception of it melded perfectly into a single train of thought. I imagine that Leo, obviously compelled to write poetry, would struggle to do so on his own. But as Arnold Schnabel, there's nothing holding him back.
We get Arnold's range of poetic invention here and there. It sort of pops up unexpectedly; the character stops to contemplate, or to simply documents a response to something. (A glossary of selected poems is included at the end of the book.) An emotional breakdown and time spent in a mental hospital, keeps Arnold from ever working again. The roof over his head he shares with his mother, where he has always lived, even when he was once employed as railroad break man. Arnold regrets not working but in the same breath says he can't imagine going back to work, either. He's a 42 year old bachelor who drinks a lot, stays out of trouble (for the most part), and, as we first meet him, feels the deadening weariness of routine - the same thing day after day - weighing him down. Above all, he's lonely. Writing becomes his way out of despair; he chronicles what happens or doesn't happen to validate his presence on earth (even if he wouldn't necessarily put it that way). Arnold's vivid imagination and poetic leanings make him a sort of spy seated on a bar stool, scanning the dive's disenfranchised crowd for signs of life. If he wanted to, he could perform sections of THE WASTE LAND to anyone that might listen, but more likely it's the lyrics to a Frankie Vallee song, or something from that era, that gets him going, particularly after a few drinks. Though Leo makes Arnold's empty life clear, Arnold can never fully give himself over to sadness. Why he can't really is the novel's central theme. It's the unspoken through line that carries us from episode to episode.
The boundless imagination and genre defying ins and outs of Arnold Schnabel's chronicles, including poetic interludes, at times made me think of Thomas Pynchon, but such a comparison tilts expectations in the wrong direction. No, mix Pynchon and Mr. Rogers in the literary blender -- that's not exactly right, but it's closer to the point. Dan Leo's book is not easily categorized, which is what makes it special. Think of it as a highly entertaining night on the town with Arnold Schnabel.
Arnold, like his poetically inclined creator, will never let you see how hard he works to make sure you have an emotionally satisfying, frisky good time.
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Our hero Arnold is a bundle of contradictions: pathetic, admirable, fortunate, cursed, timid, adventurous...Read more