Riding Toward Everywhere is an examination into the world of train hopping or "catching out" as it's described by William T. Vollmann. And since this is a work by Vollmann, it's also not about train hopping, but a reflection and meditation on the meaning of the word "freedom" in America and both our simultaneous longing and repulsing for this freedom among the country's nation of hobos and transients.
Vollmann is a tricky writer for me. I've made numerous attempts to read his debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels, only to stumble and fail 50 pages in. Whores For Gloria and The Ice Shirt (the start of an ambitious book cycle called Seven Dreams, centering on a dream interpretation of the colonization of America) worked much better for me (in that I actually finished them), but where there's no denying his immense talent, my appreciation of him always feels remote. There's no breakthrough where I've suddenly gotten inside the work, which is my personal measure of a book's worth.
Maybe it has something to do with this being nonfiction, and about something I have an interest in, but that impression changed for me reading Riding Toward Everywhere. What makes Vollmann perfect for this are the same things that made him somewhat impenetrable for me with his fiction. Besides the actual experiences of William and his friend Steve riding the rails, there are asides on the meaning of freedom, Mark Twain's failure to recapture his early life on the Missouri, the beauty of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, and Vollmann's search to find his own personal Cold Mountain, the Everywhere of the title.
Throughout the book Vollmann relates through his own personal travels his insatiable need to "get out of here," where "here" is any place that shackles his soul down in the chains of being a citizen. His problems with the bulls at the train yards, with the current Administration, and with anything that corrupts his soul is beautifully summed up about halfway through the book when he writes:
"Every time I surrender, even necessarily, to authority which disregardingly or contemptuously violates me, so I violate myself."
Riding Toward Everywhere is not a typical travel book by any means; nor is it a typical look at the American Landscape. William T. Vollmann is incapable of writing anything typical, and here he does an admirable job of expressing what it is he, and many others, understand to be the fabric of our country.
And although it doesn't really serve this review at all, I'd like to leave with one more quote from the book, since it jumped out at me as soon as I read it, and shows how delicate Vollmann can be even while talking about pornographic graffiti in box cars. There is a small aside where Vollmann is visiting an old ranch with his daughter, who wants nothing more than to catch a mouse for a pet, which she precociously proceeds to do. After hearing of the hantavirus carried by the rodents in that part of the country, he writes:
"After that I sent my little girl to wash her hands with soap, and I would not let her try to catch any more mice. She understood why, but her heart did not understand, and so whenever she thought about mice she felt sad."