Monday, January 11, 2010

Reading Rainbow: Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann

Much like the book I read just before (The Rum Diary for those not up to speed), this was my first journey into the oeuvre of William T. Vollmann.

Going in, I knew that he wrote Europe Central, the National Book Award for Fiction winner from 2005, because I have it sitting unread on one of my bookshelves. As it is a bit more on the voluminous side of things, I opted to ease into the waters as it were with Riding Toward Everywhere.

This book is an account of his experiences hopping freight trains. While occasionally veering into sections lacking in cohesiveness and coherence--an inevitability, I suppose, given his propensity toward stream of consciousness writing--it is for the most part an engaging read. Its vision of the American West from trains throttling across the land is compelling and brimming with romanticism. Its language and its voice are filled with verve and passion.

Unfortunately, that voice is one that isn't always accessible. Through nearly 200 pages, I never reached a point where I felt like I had met stride with Vollmann's stream of consciousness. So, despite the book's relative brevity (he has after all written a 3,000+ page, seven volume work about poverty), it wasn't the easiest 200 pages. While he writes with passion for his subject, that passion does get into the way at times. There seems to be a lack of focus at times, almost as if he were a child with ADHD. His voice is fully realized to be sure, but it seems like there were times in the book where that voice could have been reigned in just a bit.
Regardless, the book does give us great images of the West from the trains (routes I've traveled on "citizen" trains), and his quest for Cold Mountain is one that I think we are all sort of predisposed to associate ourselves with. It's also coming from the right place. His passion for the hobo lifestyle is true (although it is one I cannot say I share). His love for the world it opens up to him comes through on every page. It's just sometimes that love is a little muddled.

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