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January 9, 2007
'Catching Out'

I haven’t read very much of Sacramento-based writer William T. Vollmann’s work, but what I have read is fairly stunning. Vollmann was awarded the 2005 National Book Award for fiction for his novel “Europe Central,” and he has written a great deal of literary nonfiction as well.

The New York Times Book Review described Vollmann’s novel as: "His most welcoming work, possibly his best book…part novel and part stories, virtuoso historical remembrance and focused study of violence.”

The Times literary supplement called him “one of the most important and fascinating writers of our time.”

So he’s got some impressive credentials. But what matters most is if an artist speaks to you through his work. Does he illuminate the world in a way that makes it both new and familiar? Vollmann did that for me.

The piece I read is his most recently published “travel story,” which appears in this month’s Harper’s as a feature called “Letter From a Freight Train: Catching Out - Travels in an Open Boxcar.”

The piece follows Vollmann’s recent experiences riding freights - often starting in and around Sacramento - going wherever the train takes him. Vollmann often makes these travels with a friend he just identifies as Steve (another Sacramentan and a longtime personal acquaintance of mine).

I had heard of the train trips for years and had seen many of Steve’s photo albums of the trips, as well. Vollmann’s writing is a whole other vision, and a rather brilliant one, into a dark, anachronistic world.

The writer told me the piece is the abridged opening chapter of his latest book, which he just finished and which will be published sometime next year. Much of it takes place in and around Sacramento, Roseville and Marysville as Vollmann and friends try to catch out.

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