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Book Review

Spotlight on: Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard

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The mythology of the hobo is fascinating. We perceive their lives as a combination of freedom and struggle, and their often-celebrated poetry does nothing to quash that idea. Multi-award-winning author Lucius Shepard delves into this world with both factual and fictional results. An article, a novella, and a short story appear together in the themed collection, Two Trains Running.

In my review (published by Green Man Review) of Cliff Williams' One More Train to Ride -- an anthology of hobo poetry and autobiography -- I wrote that "a lot of hoboes leave the life because of changes that have occurred in the quality of people." The FTRA (Freight Train Riders of America) get a lot of the blame for this, especially by one particular police officer who has made this investigation his focus. Known in some areas as the "hobo mafia," they have been accused of murders, rapes, drug smuggling, and derailing trains, all while the members deny any involvement, simply describing themselves as part of a "brotherhood."

In 1998, author Lucius Shepard investigated this problem on his own by voluntarily joining the hobo community. Hosted by various FTRA members (names changed to avoid potential repercussions) and other "train tramps," the resulting article -- simply titled "The FTRA Story" -- was published in Spin Magazine. This expose appears in its entirety (it was edited for magazine publication) in Two Trains Running.

Coming in at under thirty pages, the article is pretty slight, its main revelation being a confession from a non-FTRA-affiliated hobo named Sidetrack, who claims responsibility for several of the unsolved murders. Other hoboes are quoted and interviewed to bring out atmosphere, but as far as investigative reporting goes, it's not much. Plus, Shepard's disdain for the hoboes and their choice of lifestyle is palpable throughout the article and, indeed, the entirety of Two Trains Running. (Read the FTRA's response to the article.)

When Billy Long Gone, looking for his lost dog, has to hop on a bizarre black train to get him back, he thinks he may have "caught the westbound" (the hobo euphemism for dying), but his fellow passenger informs him that he is headed "Over Yonder." This novella is the centerpiece of Two Trains Running (taking over half its length) and is a fiction inspired by Shepard's time riding the rails, combining the facts and rumors he gleaned with his own style of speculation. Though it won the 2003 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, "Over Yonder" simply doesn't click with me. Instead of offering a true storyline, Shepard has his hoboes blather on about philosophy and finding one's place in the world. This, I can hear in any coffeeshop in America; I don't need it in my fiction. The pace picks up a bit at the end, when the group is attacked by strange creatures called "beardsleys" and "fritters" but these few pages do little to improve on their predecessors.

Which leaves "Jailbait" as the only piece worth reading in Two Trains Running. Even this is a stretch, because after involving us in the lives of two engaging people, Madcat and Grace, and their personal issues during their attempt at a relationship, Shepard complicates things with flashes of the abnormal, seemingly just to remain in the realm of the speculative. But, flashes they are and, as such, can be ignored.

From the little I learned about hoboes from my other readings, their lifestyle seems to be in direct opposition to the sort of fantastic world that Shepard puts them in, making it difficult to take the writing seriously. In addition, the author's style involves a lot of long description and minimal character development. This, combined with his obvious lack of respect for his subjects, even down to their creative expression and the concept of the "hobo moniker," meant that the more I read of Two Trains Running, the less I liked Lucius Shepard. Putting the best of the three works at the end of the book was a good strategy, but it was still unable to remove the bad taste that the first two left in my mouth. If I'm going to have an agenda forced upon me, it should at least be accompanied by entertainment.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

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