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A Modern Hobo?

Eddy Joe Cotton
Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America
(Harmony Books, 2002)

At the end of Hobo, a new memoir by Eddy Joe Cotton, one finds a glossary. Though a familiar feature of grade-school textbooks, that a glossary should append a work of imaginative literature may initially seem rather odd. But Hobo exploits a stockpile of homely colloquialisms from a bygone era—the America of Depression and dustbowls, touring carnivals and vaudeville shows, locomotives and tramping; and this renders some form of lexicography a necessity.

The reader is instructed to consult the glossary when confronted with an unfamiliar expression. However, after turning to it several times, I found myself eagerly pouring over its delightful, well-researched entries. Cotton evidently did his homework; he not only defines a phrase, but also explores its etymological and historical roots.

In Hobo’s glossary, we learn, for example, that “carrying the banner” refers—unaccountably—to a hobo “walking the streets all night to avoid arrest as a vagrant or to keep from freezing.” And that a “lump” is “a package of food given a tramp.” “A proper lump, to a tramp of discernment, is one that contains not only food for sustenance, but some pastry or cake as well; hence a ‘bald-headed lump’ is one with nothing but bread and meat.” And we learn that “C, H, and D,” the name of the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton railroad, also means “cold, hungry and dry.” “The tramp ‘calling in’ at a jungle fire will declare he is ‘C, H, and D’ to indicate he wants food and drink, with an opportunity to warm himself.”

I mention the glossary that concludes Hobo at the beginning of this review, in part, because it is one of the best, most attractive features of the book. This archive of exotica is a fascinating read in its own right, and appeals jointly to the historian and the poet in us. At the same time, I think it illustrates Hobo’s greatest faults.

Let me explain.

Hobo relates the story of Eddy Joe Cotton’s tramping apprenticeship, during late fall in 1991. Cotton introduces the reader to a younger version of himself, aimlessly hitchhiking, a drifter on the cusp of adulthood. On the road, he befriends a grizzled, bemused career tramp, Alabama, who takes Cotton under his wing. Together, they roam westward in freezing boxcars. Along the way, Hobo celebrates the spectacular landscape of the American West, its steep mountains and broad plains, as well as small, dilapidated towns.

Alabama tutors Cotton in the etiquette of train yards and hobo jungles. An empty stomach imparts the value of friendship and mutual support; run-ins with rednecks and violent outlaws underscore the importance of vigilant presence of mind. But, most crucially, Alabama exposes Cotton to the joy of the tramping life; the independence, receptivity, and spontaneity that forms the hobo’s ideal character and constitutes his ultimate reward.

This story forms the main subject of Hobo. At the same time, Cotton sets the tale against the backdrop of an examination of his troubled relationship with his father. Though a single parent, and despite having to subsist on poverty wages, we sense that Cotton’s father raised his son remarkably well. Both are endowed with independence, shrewdness, and determination, as well as great stores of imagination and love; and this inheritance colors Cotton’s interpretation of their relationship. We also sense that father and son are fiercely close, like brothers. They live together, travel together, and work together as brick masons. In Cotton’s rendering, a deep affection for his father is palpable. Equally as palpable is the tension their intimate relationship inevitably brings.

Hobo thus presents a coming-of-age tale—Cotton’s declaration of independence from his father. The terms of this struggle are both actual and figurative. On the one hand, it entails a geographical divorce. A major fight between them leads Cotton to quit their shared life and escape to the open road to become a tramp.

On the other hand, there is metaphorical assertion: the author’s name itself. Born Zebu Recchia, “Eddy Joe Cotton” is Recchia’s nom de plume, and his tramping “handle.” With the assumption of this new name early in Hobo, not only is Rechhia/Cotton’s independence asserted (the repudiation of the paternal name); a new identity is created: Eddy Joe Cotton, latter-day hobo. But of what stuff is this new identity made?

It is a peculiar conceit of contemporary American culture (particularly youth culture) that any role can be played, as long as the actor dresses the part. We manipulate our dress and manner of speaking, in order to create a kind of self-mythology, or fabricated identity. We assume the right to fictionalize the self. An assumption underlying this practice is that our contemporary situation is somehow empty, meaningless, or inauthentic. We must, therefore, look beyond ourselves (to other cultures, to the past) to fill the void, and give meaning to our lives. (This notion may explain the significance of certain subcultures now flourishing at the margins of the American mainstream—for example, the primitivistic Rainbow Family, or the reentrenched third world-ism of the left.)

Ironically, the quest for authenticity necessarily produces its opposite, inauthenticity. One can only substitute a thin, intangible character in place of one’s actual identity. A fabricated self can never be as fully formed, as fat with history and life, as the identity that is one given, which one is born into. The fictionalization of the self produces a “flat” character (to use E.M. Forster’s term), only as substantial as our meager creative powers allow.

It strikes me that, in Hobo, Eddy Joe Cotton describes an act of self-invention of this kind; and this generates a deep weakness in the book. Cotton distinguishes himself from his father by appropriating the identity of a tramp. Can’t this tramp-identity be compared to, say, a beatnik in his beret, or a punk with a menacing sneer? Or, given the tramp’s historical remoteness and the antique pallor of riding the rails, to those comical Revolutionary War re-enactors?

As a consequence, it is difficult to read Hobo as a memoir. Though ostensibly autobiographical, Hobo feels more like of a work of fiction. In it, self-invention supplants self-knowledge (the epistemological object of autobiography); and self-portrayal (autobiography’s aesthetic task) gives way to literary technique. This brings us back to Hobo’s glossary. Cotton composes his memoir with the literary material it contains. His prose chokes with precious bits of dialect appropriated from the past. My point is that Cotton’s language was not natural to him; it is not the speech of his parents, his home, or his contemporaries; rather, it is lifted straight from American folklore. Reading Hobo thus calls directly into question the advantage of employing a borrowed voice.

Take, for example, the following passages:

One thing about riding trains is the walking. It’s called “padding the hoof.” You can count on walking a lot…
I was riding a Southern Pacific eastbound out of Colton, California, on the “Sunset Route.” I hopped a hotshot at sunrise and by midday was highballin’ through the Mojave Desert… Two hours into the desert a bull drove up beside the train. He radioed the engineer and had me kicked off the train in the middle of the desert in the hottest part of the day. He waited till I was two hours out of his yard—probably because he was enjoying the drive—to do this. I had to walk three miles to a junkyard and hitchhike another fifty to the next train yard. Devil Pig Fucker! Took an extra two days to get to El Paso.

“Padding the hoof,” “hotshot,” “highballin’,” “bull”—these antique terms obscure the meaning of this passage, and require lexicographic intervention (each phrase can be found in the glossary). And their employment in a modern memoir simply sounds phony. This literary distortion pervades Hobo:

A cowboy is someone who spends his time alone on the prairie taking in long breaths of wild sage. Cowboys don’t have homes because homes are one of the few places he can’t get up and leave. And when a cowboy can’t do what he wants he gets ornery real fast—making anyone at home wish he would “just go.”

A tramp is a cowboy. He rides the open range, he sleeps under the stars, and he believes in the luck of the Golden Years. The Golden Years are not segments of time but long moments that pass without tension or confusion. They come on a “good luck train”—a train that rolls from sunup to sundown with only a few stops for fuel and crew. The luck isn’t in the number of miles traveled but in the pure surprise that comes when the day has passed so beautifully. It’s a sober man’s morphine.

To be successful, in aesthetic terms, an autobiography or memoir must be composed with a natural voice, perhaps as the author naturally talks to himself or to friends about himself. I don’t mean, by this, to advocate literary informality. As all works of art require delicate composition, so even informality, as a literary effect, represents the result of a protracted artistic struggle. Informality must be fought for, must be achieved. But consider the alternative to a natural voice, namely affectation. In autobiography, affectation induces a kind of alienation of the reader from the author. It can be compared to listening to a bragger. We instinctually distrust a bragger’s account; we sense that his version of events depicts only his wishes, not what actually took place. Our skepticism isn’t fatal, though, for there is pleasure in the listening. We derive pleasure from a bragger’s tale because we treat it as a work of fiction.

Perhaps my complaint isn’t ultimately against Cotton’s tale itself. For, if we think of it as fiction, Hobo is actually filled with such pleasures as we expect fiction, like bragging, to offer.


Bradley Kerr


The Brooklyn Rail


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