There have been many songs inspired by the melancholy sound of a train whistle off in the lonesome distance, from the folk classic “500 Miles” to the more recent Chris Isaak song “5:15.” Nostalgic politicians, most notably Richard Nixon, have cited childhood memories of a train's whistle as the source of their love of home and country. Now there's even a book inspired by a long-ago train whistle.
And the author, Tom Zoellner, is a literary magician: He has taken an academic-sounding, eat-your-spinach kind of subject and turned it into a gracefully written, densely detailed meditation on trains – past, present and future.
Sure, the title is too long and the topic is no eyeball magnet. But Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World – From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief has a cool cover drawing of an on-rushing train hurtling through the night, which is sure to draw you in, and once you open it up there are so many reasons to keep reading that it's nearly impossible to put down.
You will keep reading if you've ever wondered why Gov. Jerry Brown has made building the 160-minute Los Angeles – to – San Francisco bullet train such a high priority – whether you think of it as a brilliant, forward-looking push into the future or a bone-headed, nostalgia-driven boondoggle.
]You will keep reading if you think of trains only as something associated with your great-great-grandfather's time in the sepia-tinted 19th and early 20th centuries, rather than as a vital part of the transportation puzzle for the high-def 21st century.
And you will keep reading if you've ever wondered about the origin of the driving beat in American roots music, from the old blues pioneers to the modern age of rock.
Zoellner, an L.A.-based journalist and associate professor of English at Chapman University, grew up in Arizona and later worked for the Arizona Republic. But he tells the Weekly that inspiration for his latest book came from the summers he spent as a kid in wide-open Kansas, a state crisscrossed by trains and their accompanying whistles as they blew through the small prairie towns dotting the landscape.
“I used to listen to the sound of the U
nion Pacific railroad, and it always sounded like it was coming from a mysterious place,” he says. “That was really the origin of this book.”
What Zoellner has produced with his fifth nonfiction work is a literary mash-up: part travelogue, as he rides seven trains that shaped the modern world; part personal memoir, as he describes the people he met along the way; and part history of trains, from their origin to their impact on societies around the world and their vital role in the fast-forward 21st century.
There are many remarkable insights here. Zoellner notes, for example, that the advent of the train in the mid – 19th century changed the way people looked at landscapes, preparing them for the arrival of motion pictures, just a few decades down the road: “The flickering quality of the landscape made the foreground virtually disappear and brought a new method of 'seeing' into the vocabulary of the brain.”
He also makes a convincing case that trains influenced the literary voice of Leo Tolstoy, the fantasies of Walt Disney and the driving beat of American music. “The birthplace of the blues was the cradle of the Southern railroad,” he says. “The rhythmic chants became speeded up and mechanized so that the chugging of the rails became a symbol for lost love and escape.”
Typical of the graceful writing in this book is this passage describing a young woman Zoellner met while riding the train from Pentland Firth in Scotland to Land's End in England: “I liked the way she laughed and her soft accent, and I thought of what it had been like to be 25 in a suit-and-tie job and feeling simultaneously pleased with the grown-up accessories and yet feeling vaguely like an imposter. She dropped a studiously casual reference to a boyfriend – lucky man, I thought – deep into the conversation as we were approaching Edinburgh, and it might have depressed me in another context, but this was the train, which has its own set of mingled desires and cruelties.”
Although Zoellner adopts the voice of a perceptive observer for most of the book, he ends it with a stirring defense of the proposed L.A.-San Francisco bullet train, a passion he reiterates when speaking with the Weekly.
“I don't want to be a head-in-the-clouds romanticist, but it's important for our future as a state,” he says. “It's not going to usher in an era of total fuel efficiency, it won't make money, it's going to be hard to build, and it will only have a partial impact on traffic going from L.A. to the Bay Area. But it can work, and it can be an inspiration of where we need to go as a society. This is our Gemini Project.”
Zoellner notes that 100 million people board a train each morning and, yes, he is one of them, traveling from downtown L.A. to Orange, home of Chapman University.
“I take a train to work every day, 47 minutes,” he says. “It's cheap and it saves me from the freeway.”
Tom Zoellner reads from Train at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 16. Contact the writer at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @paulteetor.