You may not know it yet, but Tom Zoellner's new book is one you need to read. Like its subject, Train, is by turns lyrical, powerful, romantic, transporting, and rich. The author of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, Zoellner illustrates how the modern era was ushered in and strapped in place by railroads, and how trains -- the reality and the idea -- continue to shape the world as we understand it.
Train is, in effect, a trip, and Zoellner is the ideal guide and traveling companion, through Russia, China, India, South America. First, he's fascinated by trains, and his evident enthusiasm is contagious. He writes, "I sometimes think that if I had nothing better to do with my life that I would buy a stack of Amtrak tickets and sit in the club car and listen to people's stories" -- and we believe him. Second he's a keen observer (and describer) of people, and he can bring the landscape scrolling by his window to life in just a few sentences. He also manages to provide the history and context the reader needs to grasp the bigger picture he's riding through, whether it's the British Rail System and the chaotic, bucolic beginnings of train travel, or China's Ministry of Railways and its runaway "golden path to prosperity," without veering into the kind of mind-numbing recitation of facts and figures that prompts either skipping pages or a nap.
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It doesn't hurt that the history Zoellner's writing about, although relatively brief, is packed with colorful characters, including "foamers" -- people who get so excited about trains that they foam at the mouth. In "Blood on the Tracks," a chapter on Zoellner's attempt to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by rail, he introduces King Boris of Bulgaria, an early and regular passenger on the Orient Express. A "serious foamer," Boris had his own pair of canvas work overalls custom-tailored in Paris, and "he loved nothing more than to ride in the locomotive and ask all kinds of questions of the driver and the fireman. The directive eventually came down: anyone who let King Boris talk his way into the cab would be fired on the spot."
Train is not just a great ride; it also takes the reader from point A to point B and prompts a bracing look at the future of transportation along the way. The chapter on trains in the U.S., where "the vast majority of American citizens have never once been on board a passenger train, except perhaps the toy steam railroad that circles the edges of Disneyland and Disney World," is particularly sobering. Zoellner nails the small but important details, "the unmistakable fragrance of Amtrak: blue toilet fluid, old socks, a lacing of diesel fuel." And he charts the track that trains in the U.S. rode in the public imagination, from "the friendly face of progress" to the predatory "visage of the devil," all in the space of decades. Today, Amtrak "is limping along in a state of perpetual mediocrity," even though its trains are fundamentally and uniquely democratizing, and even though trains continue to occupy a prominent place in American literature and music. The producers of Gladys Knight's song "Midnight Plane to Houston" knew what they were doing when they changed the title to "Midnight Train to Georgia."
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Zoellner doesn't shy away from the darker chapters in the history of the railroads -- the men who died laying tracks in impossible places and were buried or abandoned there, the suicides drawn as if by instinct to the train's brutal end, the indispensable part that well run trains played in the Nazis' Final Solution for Europe's Jews. But all of the darkness is balanced by Zoellner's curiosity about the world and its inhabitants, and how the train allows him to satisfy both. He's fundamentally an optimist, one who believes that "the people you meet along the way give (the trip) shape and color, and Amtrak is one place where America converses with itself. It is a vestigial whiff of a commonality among citizens, rich and poor, a mode of collective destiny, 'this thing we all do together.'"
Fair warning: After you finish Train, you may experience the urge to quit your day job and travel around the world for yourself -- or at least take an Amtrak train a couple of hundred miles to see what that's like. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to run into Tom Zoellner.
Train was released January 30. Currently Zoellner has no upcoming book-signings scheduled in the metro Phoenix area. He will, however, appear at the Tucson Festival of Books, which will take place March 15 and 16 at University of Arizona.