JULY BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: “Rolling Nowhere”

I don’t know about you, but July flew by for me.

Between working a full-time internship, celebrating the 4th by floating down the James River, and sneaking in as many weekend picnics and concerts and cooking adventures as possible, it felt like I hardly had time to pick up a book. Good thing “Rolling Nowhere” is such a page turner! It’s a thoughtful nonfiction book with tons of actionwho even knew those existed, right?

I posed some pretty dense questions at the beginning of the month. Here are my thoughts after revisiting “Rolling Nowhere”:

  • 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.)

o   “Rolling Nowhere” inspires me in many ways, but most of all because of the project’s genesis. After proposing the project to Amherst, Conover listened to his advisor’s opinion on his project, got past the fact that his college couldn’t support his determination to ride the rails, and went ahead with it anyway. I’m currently working on a thesis project about broken families in literature, and it’s a means to my end goal of writing a memoir about social media and adoption. By treating my thesis project as an opportunity to explore some of my deepest and most personal curiosities, I’ve found a way to engage with academic work in a way that hasn’t been possible for me before. Regardless of whether I ever write that book, I think that a key takeaway from “Rolling Nowhere” is that if you are curious about something, learn more, even if that means traveling to new places or interacting with people who don’t necessarily want to talk to you. Be smart, be safe, be respectful of your subject matterand the rest will fall into place.

  • 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?

o   I love this book because Conover doesn’t attempt to summarize homelessness. Instead, he took incredibly detailed notes and reproduced pages and pages of dialogue, bringing the voices of the people he met onto the page. That’s a powerful technique, and it’s ethical writing. One piece of information that surprised me was the way Conover traced food handouts to show how they can determine someone’s schedule. College students joke all the time about only showing up to events in order to get pizza or ice cream, but when a person doesn’t have a dollar and the night’s entertainment is a religious service, the power dynamic becomes very different.

  • 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?

o   I think it comes down to action and experience. Are you interested in helping the homeless or learning more about another culture or maybe you’ve been watching RuPaul and now you’re curious about drag shows? Go. Talk to people you don’t know. Be a sponge and have no preconceived notions. When you no longer feel comfortable generalizing, that’s when you’re really getting to a deeper level of knowledge. Don’t worry if your ideas about the world get shaken upyou’ll rebuild them, and this time they’ll be stronger and more inclusive.

  • What “characters” stayed with you after finishing the novel? Were there any moments that you predict will haunt you next time you pass train tracks?

o   I continue to be haunted by the old wino Conover describes on page 210 of my copy. I’ll let the passage stand for itself:

“I had never seen a human being in such horrible shape.

But the worst was yet to come. As the old wino stumbled off, the loud, nasty man turned back to us. He whispered harshly, “He’s got a big check comin’. He’s got a big check comin’ tomorra, and I’m fuckin’ gonna get it from him…Oh, yeah, I been with him long enough, I know it’s in the mail. Gonna knock that mutherfucker on the head – do you believe me? You think I’m kiddin? I’m gonna kill ‘im, that’s what. Come back, you’ll see.”

o   The violence of this passage is all the worse because we will never know how the situation was resolved. That’s an emotionally draining truth that anyone who engages with transient populations will encounter.

  • 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?

o   In the hands of a less sensitive writer, “Rolling Nowhere” could have easily become a travelogue with the hoboes thrown in as colorful characters. Instead, Conover’s work in inner-city Dallas prepared him to see the humanity in every person he met. Every person has a sense of history, mentions desires, and describes future hopes and plans. That’s huge.

  • 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?

o   Undercover reporting is risky, and the ethics are delicate. Ultimately, Conover’s work brought greater awareness about a population that has slid through the crackswhich is what journalism at its best can accomplish. In the introduction of the copy I have, Conover admits that when he rereads “Rolling Nowhere” now, he realizes how young he was when he wrote it. In some ways, I think his youth helped him to see the world with fresh eyes. I had a strange moment a few weeks ago when I discovered that in a room of four people, three of us had been adopted. My sense of self changed drastically during the moment of that realizationfinally, I was in the majority! That had never happened before. I imagine that the moments when Conover found himself among friends who understood his true identity carried a similar feeling of relief and satisfaction.

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