You might think William Vollmann’s latest, Riding Toward Everywhere, is about middle-aged hobo manqués hopping trains. The book’s dedication and much of the content suggest precisely that: “[D]edicated to Steve Jones, who never pretended that he or I were hobos and who therefore coined the term fauxbeaux, [and] who turned 50 riding the rails with me.”
As it happens, Riding contains a good deal of mid-life hobo tourism. That in itself is sort of interesting. Moreover, Vollmann is aware enough that his freight-hopping safaris smack of dilettantism. Such reflection somewhat mitigates a volume that is a patchwork of travelogue, hobo literature review, adolescent philosophical musing (as in, “When you gamble on a freight train, it is so much like life; you don’t know the future”), and photo album.
Perhaps the weakest points are when “catching out” (hopping a train) becomes a form of high escapism. In this mode, Thomas Wolfe, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac are quoted to elevate Vollmann’s frequent remark that he absolutely must “get out of here,” with “here” being wherever he happens to have been for awhile. In this context Kerouac is cited: “Who wants Dos Passos’ old camera eye?—or Proust’s subtleties? Everybody wants to GO!”
Riding works best when Vollmann reflects on freight-hopping’s history in the United States, drawing from unpublished or hobo-penned works. Effective, too, are the sudden, almost off-hand, moments of insight, as in the following riff: “A spectacular show on our boxcar wall when the adjacent train began to move; every grainer car silhouetted itself in succession, stencil cuts of perfect beauty whose beauty in fact consisted of simplifying reality until even I with my human stupidity became capable of marveling at it—how many grainers had we passed on that night, and how many had reached me? What was I missing in my rattleclank journey through life?” Such moments may reclaim what is otherwise doubtless a minor work in the Vollmann canon.