William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco Press, 2008)
Since the release of his first novel You Bright and Risen Angels in 1987, William T. Vollmann has published seventeen books, totaling 11,187 pages—a tally which does not include a prodigious amount of magazine articles and book reviews. In these pages, Vollmann has followed a unit of Islamic commandos into Afghanistan, made a solo expedition to the North Pole, kidnapped and freed a Thai sex slave, been struck by a mine in Sarajevo, and smoked crack, by his own estimate, over one hundred times. His subjects tend to be “ugly” or marginal people: prostitutes, pimps, skinheads, crack addicts, street alcoholics, guerrilla soldiers, Eskimos, and the homeless. Critics, who always acknowledge his talent and tend to label him a “bad boy,” “dark horse” or “monster,” repeatedly accuse him of death-wish adventurism, of fetishistic interest in lost souls, and of catering to a bourgeois demographic of hip young male voyeurs. He has always tried, as he said in a 1990 interview, “to accept the presence of dignity and beauty, and most of all likeness or kinship, in something that is ugly.”
Riding Toward Everywhere, a chronicle of Vollmann’s years spent hopping freight trains across America, is his most forthright, self-referential and self-interrogating book to date. The emptiness of a moving boxcar—urban and bucolic landscapes renewing themselves outside its rectangular doorframe, casting ghostly shadows on the opposite wall at night—provides the perfect context for Vollmann to question his motives as a writer and American citizen, and by extension his sense of personal freedom:
All I know is that although I live a freer life than many people, I want to be freer still; I’m sometimes positively dazzled with longing for a better way of living. What is it that I need?
Isn’t going anywhere the same as going nowhere? I wrote, but that begs another question: Isn’t running away from everything the same thing as running toward everything? In which case, isn’t fear the same as happiness? Would I be riding the freight trains if I wasn’t trying to escape from something?
The book is part confession, travelogue, investigatory journalism, and memoir. It is also a treatise on Vollmann’s American literary heroes: Kerouac, Hemingway, Thoreau, London, Wolfe, and Twain, all of whom lived exemplary lives in their quest for self-reliance and individual freedom. But perhaps more than anything it is a painfully honest series of journal entries, which he and Ecco Press must have felt content to publish, considering Vollmann-the-personality now carries as much commercial appeal as any subject he might care to write about. Reading of Vollmann’s gun-toting exploits in Thailand and the Tenderloin, for example, one was always tempted to think, “Who is this man?” In the new work, he seems to have pre-empted this question by asking it himself: “I found that I was speaking aloud. Over and over I whispered and shouted to myself: Who am I?”
The answer seems to be that he knows less and less each year, which is all the more encouraging, as what would he do if he figured it out? Stop writing? Stop traveling? Stop trying to be freer, and thus stop writing books that demonstrate what it’s still possible to do, who it’s possible to meet, where it’s possible to go? The word everywhere—as opposed to anywhere, somewhere, or nowhere—recurs often as the place he demands to go. In a way, one can belong everywhere without ever having been everywhere. It’s a different and slightly unsettling thing to belong anywhere, somewhere, or nowhere. There is endless hope and expectation in traveling toward everywhere; one is never quite there, but always approaching it.
Riding Toward Everywhere does suffer from a typical Vollmann handicap—that of excess ambition. What a New York Times reviewer described as Vollmann’s lack of discipline in not narrowing The Royal Family’s sprawling 776 pages down to essentials is really his uncompromising discipline in remaining true to his own conception of a book, despite the resulting decrease in sales and reader tolerance. Riding Toward Everywhere, even at 288 pages (minus 60 pages of grainy black-and-white photographs) sags under the weight of its hobo research and quotations, the way Moby Dick sags in its digressions on whaling implements. It also feels ironically imprisoned by its own freedom-seeking influences (Walden, Dharma Bums, London’s The Road). The book holds so tightly to these models that it risks not becoming its own thing, like a train hopper clutching the grab irons of a boxcar, reluctant to jump off.
But it has moments of inspiration. Discontentedly rattling through sunlit green meadows in Utah, Vollmann asks himself what exactly he is seeking, if not this. "In an instant and for an instant I found it, when between refineries, on a small street of green lawns, and just over the Union Pacific fence from me, a blond boy and a blonde girl in bathing suits were just about to step into their wading pool…" At the moment he is hot and thirsty, he is unsure of his location, and as soon as he sees the boy and girl, they are gone. Chemical winds, warehouses and a field of dead grass replace the vision. He writes: “I was touched by a golden pathos almost entirely purified of sadness.” For someone in search of everywhere, Vollmann suggests, it may be necessary to establish an equilibrium between freedom and imprisonment, beauty and ugliness, movement and stillness. The reward for maintaining such a precarious balance, to Vollmann and his readers, are these little pockets of enlightenment he encounters along the way. In his poem “Postscript,” about a drive along Ireland’s Flaggy Shore, Seamus Heaney touches on a similar experience:
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.