JULY BOOK CLUB: “Rolling Nowhere”

So far, #ReadWithLD has tackled some stellar volumes. From the novel that preceded this summer’s unparalleled sobfest (undoubtedly playing in a theater near you) to an experimental novel written entirely in dictionary entries, our picks have shown that the LD community is fascinated by a wide variety of topics and forms.

When the book club Google doc went up months ago, I immediately knew that I wanted to spread the word about Ted Conover’s incredible first book, “Rolling Nowhere.” It clocks in at just under 300 pages, a perfectly adventurous book for a weekend away at the beach or a plane trip or just a few hours in a lawn chair after work.

It’s every college student’s dream… OK, not every college student’s dream, but for the writers among us, Conover’s story is pretty inspiring, and it’s literary nonfiction at its best. After becoming fascinated by romantic tales of rail-riding hoboes, Conover proposed a project: He would embed himself among hoboes and undertake one of the first anthropological studies of their off-the-grid society. Amherst (understandably) refused to support Conover’s risky premise, but he spent the summer and the following fall semester riding the rails anyway, and the result of that experience (as well as many hours of journaling, research, and rewriting) was “Rolling Nowhere.”

For the non-writers who won’t obsess about Conover’s journaling habits the way I did, I promise that you’ll find plenty of other things to think about in this rich, remarkable book. Here’s a passage to prove just how incredible this book really is:

“Hurry up, asshole,” yelled the policeman.

I looked up, startled. I was walking west over a viaduct that spanned railroad yards, the Platte River, and an interstate highway. My goal was Al and Tree’s jungle, on the other side, and I had thought that by taking the high road I would avoid having to trespass on the hot Union Pacific property underneath. Seeing this policeman fifty feet ahead of me, I was not so sure. His patrol car, lights flashing, was straddling the center line of the road. He stood next to it, waving his arms irritably and ordering the drivers of passing cars to hurry up, too.

Unaware that I had done anything wrong, I continued at the same pace toward the end of the viaduct.

“Hurry up and get your ass off the bridge!”

“Why?” I asked, still walking. “What’s going on?”

Pointing a finger at me, he cried, “I said get your ass off the damn bridgenow move!”

Disturbed, I complied and then looked back and jotted down the license number of his car. He noticed this and shouted, “Go ahead and write it down – if you can read!”

Once off the bridge, I paused. Had I been better groomed, I thought, wearing a coat and tie, this would never have happened. I had never been in trouble with the lawnever even received a traffic ticketand suddenly one point about police treatment that hoboes had made to me was driven home with force: It’s different when you’re poor.

Conover’s subsequent arrest and brief imprisonment are riveting (and may have sparked his interest in the prison system, explored later in an also excellent book called “Newjack”). Here are some questions to think about while you’re reading:

  • If you were going to spend the next year of your life writing a nonfiction book, what would you write about? (I’ll reveal mine in the discussion wrap-up.)
  • How did Conover’s observations affect your understanding of homelessness? Did his ideas confirm your previously held beliefs, change your mind about anything, or surprise you in any way?
  • What happens when we romanticize lifestyles that differ from our own? Is that admiration damaging or does it encourage compassion by stimulating interest in often-overlooked populations?
  • What “characters” stayed with you after finishing the novel? Were there any moments that you predict will haunt you the next time you pass train tracks?
  • Conover’s experiences themselves are remarkable, but how does his writing shape the raw material he lived through? What could this book have been in the hands of another writer whose perspective and voice were different from Conover’s?
  • What did you think of Conover’s undercover reporting? How did you feel when people reacted to him as if he were homeless, unaware that he was a college student working on a research project?

“Rolling Nowhere” is a compelling, compassionate narrative that can allow you to step outside of your daily life. If you want to chat, you can find me on Twitter @delgadia2015. Please feel free to Tweet at me (but actually, I would love that) and watch out for Tweets about “Rolling Nowhere” throughout the month under the hashtag #ReadWithLD! You know the drillat the end of the month, we’ll reconvene for some more discussion. Now that you’ve got everything you need to get started, go forth and order Conover’s book online! (It’s hard to find in bookstores these days.)

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