Of course, the dynamic of the dollar store book channel generally leads to a ”oh, that sounds interesting” selection criteria, as one rarely runs across titles that were on one’s “wishlist”. I had never heard of William T. Vollmann, despite his having written a dozen or so books, but his Riding Toward Everywhere was sitting there, and looked like an interesting memoir, and so I picked it up.
I suppose that had I known more of Vollmann, I would have been in a better state for plowing into this ... I have since discovered that many of his titles (based in various places around the world, he is certainly an “adventurous” author) are presented as “dreams”, and that is very much the feel here. Although certainly in “memoir” territory, this telling lacks much of the place/time context cues that one would typically expect, rather being a rambling digression on the author’s hobby of riding freight trains. I say “hobby” as he evidently has no need of “riding the rails” as a latter-day hobo, he and his (equally middle-class) traveling companions fly, bus, and even pay for their train transport on their ways to and from their freight adventures, so this seems to be some “mash-up” of one man’s model railroad and another’s RV’ing, bringing some sort of enrichment into their lives.
Part of the attraction appears to be in the literary heritage of the “traveling life”, as he frequently quotes Jack London, Kerouac, Hemingway, Twain, Thomas Wolfe, and others whose experiences Vollmann appears to be trying to, in some degree, recapture. Although, again, this is no linear narrative, no history of his experiences, just a tumble of images from the rails, and the environment of those who still ride them. The thought occurred to me at a couple of points, that Riding Toward Everywhere was almost more of a poem (although without any pretense of formal structuring) than other form, unless of course, this is what constitutes the “dreams” of his several titles that bear that designation. Here's one passage where this was particularly notable:
Another notable thing of this book is that it is about two thirds text and one third photos, although not set out to illustrate the text as one might expect. Despite the fact that people and places from the book appear in the pictures (and so certainly could have been interspersed with the copy), they all come in a block at the end, with a brief identifying section (with what would have been “captions” had they actually appeared with the images). Why is it like this? Who knows, perhaps to further the nonlinear aspects, as recognizing the images from the descriptions well after the reading part is done. All in all, this is an intriguing book, and the caveats of the author’s purpose for being there are only a slightly distracting undercurrent (for me, at least ... I was on some levels wanting to know more about his life when he “went back to his real world” to put this into some sort of context beyond the bits dropped of foreign travel or family concerns). If it is a “dream” of riding the rails, it’s an enjoyable one to indulge in for a time.I wandered the hot and narrow brick alley-canyons, my gaze defeated by gratings; then came windows all nacreous like husks of sea-things, every pane different, and there was the smell of garbage. Was this all there was to being anywhere? In the alley where someone had written on the brickwork I HATE MY LIFE, there came a view of the elevated tracks, and upon them a string of dark brownish-grey BNSF gainer cars. The cars did not move.
How does a book like Riding Toward Everywhere (first edition hardcover) end up at the dollar store? Well, my first thought is that, like several other “finds” covered here, this falls between standard categories, and might not have “found its audience” and so gone out of print. However, this might not be the case on this, as it's available in a slightly later paperback edition, and Amazon still has copies of the hardcover at full price (although “like new” used copies are in their system for as little as 27¢, plus shipping). So, maybe (as has appeared to have been the case previously), I was “just lucky” to hit a dump of that book in that dollar store on that day. This certainly is a hard call as far as a recommendation goes, however, being firmly in the “your mileage may vary” territory. If a dream-like portrait of a middle-aged, middle-class man indulging in his passion “for the rails” in a current time frame sounds like it would appeal to you, by all means, seek this out, but I imagine that this isn't the sort of thing that would appeal to all-and-sundry, although I found it a pleasant enough read.