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Tales of temporal displacement, immortality and metaphoric storms.

The Rail World

Lucius Shepard's latest, Two Trains Running (Golden Gryphon, $22.95), is an odd and affecting amalgam of fact and fiction, of documentary realism and extravagant fantasy. The subject of this slender collection is, as the title indicates, trains and the relationship between these "two-million-ton beasts" and the modern-day hobos who ride them.

The starting point for Shepard's fictive meditations is "The FTRA Story," an expanded version of an article published in 1998. This rambling, ruminative piece recounts the months Shepard himself spent riding the rails, searching for the truth behind the mutable legend of the FTRA (Freight Train Riders' Association), the "hobo mafia" rumored to be responsible for dozens of murders. Shepard's investigation neither proves nor disproves the association's guilt, but it does offer a series of vivid portrayals of the killers, crazies and burnt-out cases he encountered along the way. The people, language, legends and landscapes that populate this essay reappear, transformed but recognizable, in the two long stories that follow.

The newest of these tales, the previously unpublished "Jailbait," takes us deep into the haunted life of Madcat, a broken-down alcoholic afflicted with migraines, blackouts and a propensity for violence. Madcat, who may or may not be a killer, stumbles into a symbiotic relationship with the teenage Grace, who may or may not be his "lowlife angel of death." This deliberately open-ended story is filled with fragmented memories and unresolved questions, as Madcat struggles to comprehend the elusive "transmortal purpose" that lies at the core of his relationship with Grace.

The centerpiece of the book is the long, wonderfully imagined novella, "Over Yonder," in which another irredeemable loser (Billy Long Gone) boards a mysterious — and animate — train that takes him to an equally mysterious place known as Yonder. In Yonder, which serves as home to an assortment of reconstructed hobos, Billy recovers both his physical health and mental clarity, only to discover what he's always known: Everything has a price. Ultimately, the narrative homes in on a single, central question: Will Billy settle for the bland seductions of Yonder or take a chance on a larger, more uncertain future?

Together, the essay and stories provide a useful illustration of the complex connections between fact and fiction. At the same time, they bring a powerful imagination and first-class intelligence to bear on a little-known corner of American life. In this short but resonant book, Shepard has captured the essence of the hobo experience, recreating it with sympathy, humor and a merciless, unsentimental precision.

— Bill Sheehan, The Washington Post Book World, Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page BW13


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