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Is This Book Worth Getting?

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Riding Toward Everywhere
By William Vollmann, Ecco; $26.95
There are plenty of beautiful passages in this book-long essay about hopping freight trains at a time when (in Vollmann’s opinion) “unfreedom” is “creeping over America.” Morning on a grainer car and the “evergreen air was as good as breakfast,” and damn if you don’t want to be out there tasting it yourself, instead of, say, waiting to board a Florida-bound tin can at La Guardia. (Vollmann has a real beef with Bush-era airport security, in case you were wondering.) But a little introspection on masculinity and escape can go a long way, and when Vollmann—who won a National Book Award in 2005 for his epic historical novel Europe Central—writes that “this book has few points to make,” the point is well taken. One craves a few more actual stories, a few more encounters with modern-day hobos or at least fauxbeaux (people like Vollmann and his traveling companion Steve, who proudly came up with the phrase). On the other hand, in all fairness, there really aren’t that many people riding the rails anymore, as Vollmann is first to admit. The Jack London era is long gone, and if it’s easier to “catch out” without getting your head bashed in by a sadistic railroad-company enforcer, it’s also a much lonelier ride.
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