William T. Vollmann Trainhops, Seeks To Rescue America


If trains, connoting the eternally expanding frontier, have long served as a potent symbol for our fair nation, then trainhopping represents an outlaw strain of the American dream. William T. Vollmann must know this, because in Riding Toward Everywhere, his part-memoir, part-report, full-on paean to trainhopping, he hardly goes five pages without affirming that dangerous, true Americanism he associates with his gonzo hobby.

“I want to get to Everyplace,” Vollmann says, “not just Anyplace with its gravelly sidings.” Readers who live for this totally earnest, indelibly American brand of writing, their copies of Dharma Bums dog-eared to death, must pick up this book. But those with more cynical dispositions—we tend toward European writers, or pessimistic Americans like Philip Roth—may want to let this one ride by.

The slim volume comprises a few essays, several smaller vignettes, and about 65 of Vollmann’s photographs, which serve to confirm the truth of his frequently out-there tales. Vollmann’s a pretty good photographer, but he’s a much better writer. When his ecstatic style succeeds, you’re completely transported to his lonely, terrifying, wondrous locomotive: “Montana trains crawl high under the rainy sky, heading toward stumpy grey peaks like bearclaws. Whitewater keeps exploding between the moss-bearded firs and spruces, pillowing upon rocks and ledges, then speeding blindly on beneath that gloomy sky.”

Vollmann has an old and vital story to tell—midway through life’s journey, I found myself in a dark boxcar—and he tells it well. But he seems more interested in exploring trainhopping’s political content during this “time of extreme national politics.” Vollmann appears to perceive his pastime as politicized escapism, a return to American roots that rescues America itself. But this cynical reader saw a frivolous, essentially conservative sensibility that seeks little besides self-congratulation. “What if Cold Mountain exists nowhere except back then?” he asks, wistfully, of one longed-for destination. Nostalgia can be the stuff of great art, but not of sound politics.