Riding Toward Everywhere

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

A regular traveler on the road to excess, William T. Vollmann boasts an annual output that rivals that of Joyce Carol Oates, a knowledge of world literature that brings to mind Susan Sontag, and a complex interest in violence that defies comparison. He also possesses, at times, an artfully contorted prose style: sentences that compress his fascinations—with war, prostitution and the destitute—until they emit small explosions of wonder. This is not the case in Riding Toward Everywhere, his extended essay on train-hopping. Here, Vollmann mostly abandons moral tension and goes for all-out effusiveness. “Why have we chosen to live behind walls and windows?” he asks rhetorically, and then reckons with the quandary by chasing down the ultimate phallic symbol.

The book gets off to a rousing start with a jeremiad decrying Bush-era authoritarianism. But once the hazard-seeking Vollmann tastes the liberty of freight riding, his narrative jumps off the rails into corny grandiloquence. Between hops, he and a fellow traveler stop at a diner, where a waitress “moved amidst wall-images of rodeo queens and princesses as if she were one of them, and the omelettes were plentiful and good.”

Though it’s rare that any diner runs out of omelettes, Everywhere does have moments of old-school Vollmann self-consciousness and inquiry, especially when he captures railway itinerants’ lives of freedom and danger (highlighted by a series of photographs). And his Kerouac-infused enthusiasm for going wherever the train takes him is unique in this era of overly cautious books. But too often, he unintentionally courts the cartoonish. “On the iron horse I experienced the state of unlimited expansion,” he gushes. At moments like this, it’s easy to imagine the book read aloud by, say, the Simpsons character Martin Prince. The disobedience loses all its contagiousness.

—Michael Miller

By William T. Vollmann. Ecco, $26.95.