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Riding Toward Everywhere Hardcover – January 22, 2008

3.3 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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 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.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (January 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061256757
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061256752
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #491,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
A real dud, although it probably sounded like a good idea for an adventure book: a guy tries to re-live the past, goes hobo and rides the rails in 2006. Alas, (big surprise) post 9/11 railroad yards have surveillance systems and the bulls ride ATVs.

How many times does Vollmann actually manage to hop a freight? Not very many. When waiting for trains gets too boring, he heads to the airport to catch a flight home. He rides Amtrak too, and cell phones and credit cards are always close at hand.

Uneasy with the authenticity of this adventure, Vollmann points out Thoreau had more financial support than he let on, therefore his own experience is as valid as Thoreau's. Trouble is, Vollmann doesn't experience much of anything, and in his search for romantic old-time hobos, he shows little interest or compassion for the real bums he meets. It's all pretty empty, and his account runs as shallow as the Frontier Days cowboy re-enactments he disparages.

No matter how many times he uses the F-word, Vollmann (summa cum laude Cornell, the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Harpers, etc.) has trouble getting "hobos" to accept him, and it reads like he spoke to no more than half-a-dozen. Desperate to get enough material for a book, he tries to buy stories.

Coming across a ragged couple on the sidewalk (p. 89) he offers the woman $5 to tell him about riding the rails; she says she doesn't want to talk, that her stories are too sad; Vollmann keeps waving the fiver, but she still refuses and mentions being hungry. He might have treated the couple to a Big Mac or bag of White Castles, and maybe the stories would have flowed. Not Vollmann. He tells the couple he's going to dinner and he'll stop back later to see if they're hungry enough yet to sell him some stories.
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Format: Hardcover
We have our images of people riding the rails in bygone days: Vollmann's book is a fine but disturbing look at the reality of that life in today's world. Vollmann describes the subculture: those whose life centers on an existence on the rails, and those like himself and his friends for whom riding the rails is more of a getaway, and who can afford to fly home if they have to do so.

Getting on and off moving trains can be a dangerous business: Vollmann has many tales about broken limbs and lost legs. You'll learn about the people in this life--the frightening and reportedly often lethal FTRA, the misfits and rebels, the people like Steve and Brian, Vollmann's friends. People outside the life are referred to derisively as "citizens", and inside the group there are codes of conduct. You might be killed for $5 worth of food stamps, but your sleeping bag will never be stolen. There are people Vollmann meets and hears of who may (or may not) be serial killers: one tale is of a heavily-tattooed man who on one tattoo area has 30 dots--one for each person he has killed.

It's all rather like, in a way, homeless street people--people who live outside the normal boundaries of society. There's a dislike of rules, of laws. But at the same time, as Vollmann shows, you show respect to the railroad--for example, simple things such as not urinating or defecating in the boxcar you might be riding in, even if you're about to jump off a mile further on. It's no longer the kind of romantic life that you might see in Emperor of the North or Bound for Glory. There is at the end of the book a collection of 65 black-and-white photographs of the life and the people taken by the author. It's a fascinating look at a little-known life.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This probably one of the best books on train-hopping that I've read since Eddy Joe Cotton's Hobo and Ted Conover's Rolling Nowhere. Vollmann who quotes Cotton frequently throughout the book kind of takes a spiritual journey with catching out that I think few people will ever get to experience. Of course catching out is extremely dangerous, now even more so, but this book dispels the romanticism of it while at the same time reinforcing it. We take a journey along with Vollmann and his assortment of characters he meets on the rails. Their stories are tragic and uplifting. Where do all the lost people go when they are searching for their own Cold Mountain? Is being a citizen (aka normal) really pay-off or is it just a dull road to the same morbid destination? These are questions that you are somehow obligated to answer when reading this book. Yes, it's disjointed and Vollmann has his own style of grammar much like Selby, but it's a great read to add to your hobo wanderings library.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
to be fair I am a big W.T. Vollamann fan. The book was a great read on the becoming a non-existent means of traveling cheap. Vollmann writes some very poetic and beautiful prose and is not shy about providing opinion.
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Format: Kindle Edition
In "The Rainbow Stories," Vollmann paid prostitutes for their stories; in "Poor People," same for that group, across the world. So, this third investigation into how the other half (or more) lives "catching out" on the rails promises an intriguing journey. Some of the best moments in his novel "The Royal Family" were at the last tenth, when the protagonist leaves San Francisco and Sacramento (Vollmann's own residences) for taking the train all over the country. How does this non-fictional excursion pan out?

The best part is the first fifty pages. This is re-arranged from a Harper's Magazine piece, and benefits from cohesion, even it it sprawls in typical fashion for this author who tends to write big books. This one's comparatively brief, and it appears as if from the opening chapter, it's on target, matching author (who keeps lamenting as he's back in California that "I've got to get out of here") with a subject where he can incorporate Kerouac, Twain, Thoreau, Hemingway, London, and Thomas Wolfe. But like the last-named predecessor, he can ramble on.

"All the waiting, that living-fieldmouse smell in the grass, was a necessary part of our experience, because it transformed motion into salvation. When I hitchhike, I experience the same feeling. And I wonder whether life can be good without the hard times." (19) But, "riding the rails, like any attempt to escape from life, must taste of failure now and then unless one is willing to die." (22) A middle-aged Vollmann will not die, of course, writing this, and he often laments his slowness compared to his buddies. One expects after the start of this adventure a lot more stories about who he meets, but as he admits very late in the narrative, "absence" dominates.
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