Nathaniel's Reviews > Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes

Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover
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Aug 09, 07

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in September, 2007

Conover wrote this book while he was still an undergraduate at Amherst; but it establishes his method as an author. He is a combination of cultural chameleon (spy), investigative journalist, anthropologist, autobiographer and social commentator. He pulls off this combination nicely. Paul Theroux, at his best and least obnoxious has a similar style of telling true stories; but Conover is more political and engaged--in his action and focus. I haven't read John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me"--the story of Griffin's experiences as a white man, painted to look like a black man, in the American South of the early 20th century--but it seems that Griffin's book had the most profound impact on Conover's methodology and concerns.

Conover's style has matured a great deal since "Rolling Nowhere", as has the sharpness of his perception and the importance of his research. It might grate some people when Conover's pampered background prances into the foreground, especially when he seems so pleased with himself for managing the transition from rich kid to railway tramp; but those moments do provide readers with a much clearer understanding of the nature and limitations of their narrator. I'm thinking about moments like, "I had dismissed the church as simply the place in whose lot my dad used to park his sports car. Looking again, I saw a number of young men lounging around on the lawn outisde the place, and all of a sudden remembered similar scenes from days when I had passed the church with Dad. He worried about the safety of his car with guys like those around, and had intentionally looked away from them. That had frightened me. Tonight, though, I exchanged greetings with some."

Balancing out some of the hokier, doctors in Aspen type references, is the perspective Conover develops of his own background. For instance, "Being suddenly among the Stanford students was less a solace than a shock. Most of them were from wealthy backgrounds, had seen few hard times, and appeared to be suffering the maladies that an overdose of comfort can cause: self-indulgence, self-pity, self-absorption." It was a clear sign of the talented and significant author that Conover turned out to be, that he managed to write this book at the dawn of his twenties without being self-indulgent, self-pitying or self-absorbed.
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