The Long Way to Happiness

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com.
Friday, January 25, 2008

RIDING TOWARD EVERYWHERE

By William T. Vollmann

Ecco. 206 pp. $26.95

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, "Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means," runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities -- he's been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I've never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn't seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don't have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don't care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don't know.

In this modest little volume, Vollmann recounts several adventures riding American freight cars, or "catching out," in the company of a pleasant pal named Steve. Steve is 50, and in photographs included here he looks like a nice, relaxed decent middle-aged guy, the very opposite of a hotshot adventurer. Vollmann tells us that he himself is in his late 40s, that he's suffered a series of small strokes and his balance is bad. In other words, he's in the delicate border country just this side of geezerhood. Hopping a freight train is no longer easy. That's probably why he does it.

He's in search of authenticity. And for all the length and tenacity and even exoticism of his earlier work, he's a true-blue, understandable American of the nonconformist variety. He remembers, early on, a girlfriend who, exasperated by his purity and contrarianism, urged him to "play the game a little," and there we go right back to James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, that literary hero of the '20s who was urged to conform by his lady love but refused, because what else did he have but his integrity, his authenticity, his own pure self? And by the end, when Vollmann admonishes us to remember what Thoreau said -- "If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes" -- we get the picture.

Vollmann doesn't drive a car. He won't use a credit card. He won't own a cellphone. He antagonizes airplane security guys so they always search him. He won't "play the game a little." (It's so endearingly American. I remember my beloved ex-husband, who was so offended by a loaf of processed white bread that I bought for the kids' school sandwiches that he hung it outside the kitchen window by a rope.) So Vollmann is trying to get to a place that is real. To his way of thinking, riding in a freight car with your legs dangling over the side and the wind, rain, fog, sleet or sunshine assaulting your body is more "real" than driving around in a car with air conditioning. The hobos camped under overpasses or by the sides of tracks with cardboard for beds are more "real" than the bozos who get up in the morning, stop by a McDonald's and head off to mind-numbing jobs.

All that may be true, of course. Especially in our increasingly materialistic country, which jams products down our throats while picking our pockets of personal freedoms. Vollmann's political views are stated plainly here. "My father," he writes, "I am sorry to say, now believes that I should cool it. (I've told you that he and I both hate the President. But I would like to see the President in prison.)" These positions are easy to take. Knowing what you don't like is easy. Credit cards, processed white bread and the president are easy to deplore. But what is it that you want? Where's the "out," when you're "catching out"?

That's where Vollmann's book becomes plaintive and interesting. He quotes extensively from Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," in which the beleaguered couple enjoy just a fleeting amount of bliss before Catherine dies in childbirth. He invokes the Michigan woods of the Nick Adams stories. He names this elusive place of moral, spiritual bliss "Cold Mountain" and admits, I think, that you can never get there because once you're there, it's changed. (James Jones, in "From Here to Eternity," likened this condition to being locked in a phone booth. The world, in its ineffable glory, is out there; you can glimpse it, but you can't get to it.) What if Cold Mountain is only to be found in what one of Vollmann's comrades of the road calls "Back Then"? If it's in the past, then you really can't get to it.

Meanwhile, these two grown men pack little lunches, skulk around rail yards, try to "catch out" and sometimes do. They suffer discomfort. They really aren't the same kind of guys as Badger, Sheldon and Pittsburgh Ed, who show up in the photos. They don't go very far on these trains and sometimes take regular passenger trains home. They do "play the game a little." That's the human condition. But they give it their best shot, and that's the human condition, too. I can imagine Vollmann sassing airline security people when he's 100, yanking out his dentures for inspection. Drooling for effect, and giving a big toothless grin.

Did I mention that years ago he enlivened an otherwise pedestrian Los Angeles book signing by backing two separate women into the storeroom and giving them each a big French kiss? Looking for Cold Mountain, no d oubt.

This Sunday in Book World

* The Mitford sisters tell all.

* Elementary deductions about Arthur Conan Doyle.

* Michael Pollan resolves the omnivore's dilemma.

* Roddy Doyle makes commitments to short stories.

* And a roundup of new science fiction.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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