Essay, two novellas explore the hobo life
Coming off a bit of a dry spell in the late '90s, Lucius Shepard (The Jaguar Hunter, Louisiana Breakdown, Colonel Rutherford's Colt) offers up Two Trains Running, a short, but excellent book that will continue his literary hot streak in the new century. Despite its brevity, this book is truly a two-in-one affair. Consisting of a brand-new introductory essay, an essay about the FTRA ([Freight] Train Riders of America), which Shepard wrote for Spin magazine, and two novellas ("Over Yonder" and "Jailbait"), this collection packs the emotional punch of a book twice its size.
For years he'd heard and read stories about the FTRA, how they were responsible for hundreds of murders and were a highly organized bunch of itinerants, so Shepard set out to learn firsthand if they were all true. His essay about these adventures spent riding the rails and hanging out in hobo jungles is a fine piece of George Plimpton-style reporting.
On his journey, Shepard meets (among others) an underaged girl who calls herself "Jailbait"; a tattooed miscreant who engages in a minor showdown; "Cricket," a 48-year-old grandmother and FTRA member; an Army veteran named "Madcat"; a "yuppie hobo" who goes by the name of "Adman" when riding the rails for adventure; and a worn-out old killer named "Bones," who lives in the Florence penitentiary.
None of these lost souls backs up the myth of a Mafia-like gang that rides the rails. There are colored bandannas but no organized movements and no regular murders, ritual or otherwise. But they do provide Shepard with the fodder for an essay about the human desire for freedom, and the material to be able to write beautifully grounded sentences that sound like they could've been written by Hunter Thompson: "Night is the best time to watch trains; they seem grander and more magical. There's a gravity about them you can't feel as strongly in the daylight. They are, I think, kind of like the giant sandworms in 'Dune' . . . of course, it's possible this and all my previous perceptions are colored by the fact that I'm seriously baked. Two monster joints and a bunch of beer."
Shepard's first novella leans more toward the mystical side of hobo life, telling the story of a wanderer named Billy Long Gone who jumps a train out of Klamath Falls when he thinks another "'bo" has stolen his dog. Once on the train, he learns otherwise. And begins to wonder about reality — is he alive or dead? — when the very train itself seems to be made of living material.
Told in both third and first person, Shepard's novella, which has already won a prestigious Theodore Sturgeon Award, is a moody meditation on the nature of reality and fantasy, life and the afterlife, imbued with Shepard's flair for narrative pacing and unmistakable ear for poetics.
"Jailbait" is harder-edged, a fascinating cross between noirish crime fiction and a mainstream character study. It follows the fate of Madcat and a young girl named Grace, whom the older hobo meets when the young girl barely escapes a murderous security guard. Like all rail riders, Grace is looking for a dream that seems unattainable for someone like her: a life of love and security in the arms of someone who needs her. She thinks she might have found them in Madcat, who is possessed of nightmares rather than dreams.
Marketed as a collection of fiction and nonfiction about one of America's iconic byways — the railroad system — that blends fact and fantasy, Two Trains Running is all that and more. Like an offhand course in creative writing, Shepard's book shows readers how a writer picks up bits and pieces of useful information in the real world and transports them into the realm of fiction via his or her imagination. Of course, those who pick up Two Trains Running simply looking for good stories will not be disappointed.
— Dorman T. Shindler, The Denver Post, Sunday, March 28, 2004
TWO TRAINS RUNNING