I’ve read many accounts of trans-continental rail travel in the US but I’ve never read one quite so odd as Jenny Diski’s book, Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America (2003). The fun starts when the author makes no secret of her discomfort in the company of strangers while voluntarily placing herself in a position where such company is unavoidable. After crossing the Atlantic as a passenger on a freighter she follows up with a series of extended train trips across the Amtrak universe with a gallery of America’s lost souls. The guiding principle seems to be the curiously English expectation that if we cause no distress or disturbance to anyone else, the compliment will be automatically returned. As she soon discovers, nothing provokes a certain type of American extrovert more than a sniff of old world English reserve and self-effacement. Breaking down resistance to uncover the ill-tempered bigot concealed in every English heart is a challenge that can’t be resisted. An addiction to nicotine is her unlikely saviour, bringing her into the segregated company of polite America’s smoking outcasts. Under a dense cloud of blue tobacco smoke the cigarette comrades gather, united in their pariah status, in the comfortless accommodation that Amtrak has grudgingly allocated to them. Social, racial and cultural divisions melt away in the shared experience of exclusion from the bright and shiny world of health awareness and fitness regimes.
The craving for nicotine is only equalled by a craving for solitude that multiplies in proportion to the sudden surrender of personal space that a train journey entails. Our weary traveller carries a lot of baggage including a personal history of substance abuse and periods of psychiatric treatment. Under stress some of this baggage spills out, giving rise to painful reflections and additional anxieties. More disappointment follows when the train is left behind and the author gets to stay with friends in the endless tracts of suburbia. She quickly becomes uncomfortable with the prevailing political culture where a shared acceptance of primitive right-wing opinions is taken for granted. Compelled to disclose her liberal sentiments to her hosts, she becomes the recipient of some edgy banter – “the English lady Commie writer”. One can speculate as to which of these four descriptors gave the greatest offence. The culture clash reaches a farcical conclusion when she cannot rid herself of the ridiculous but plausible notion that her host plans to kidnap her for the purpose of injecting some moral certainties into her wobbly sensibility.
The views through the window struggle to compete with the interior landscapes although there are some fine descriptive passages, usually inspired by the majestic desolation on display. The romance of the railroad is in very short supply, which is no bad thing. The Great American Songbook is stuffed with anthems in praise of railroad romance for those who have need of it. I enjoyed the cool and measured tone of the authorial voice in this book but what I really admired was the absolute refusal to win favour with the reader. In an era when ingratiation and flattery of the reader are the keys to success it’s refreshing to find such indifference to the reader’s estimation. The accompanying images come from the last days of railroad supremacy when air travel was becoming increasingly competitive. The Santa Fe was one of the great trans-continental carriers and energetically promoted itself via magazine advertising. The focus of the offer shifts between the on-board comforts and the romance of travel. In a supreme irony, the flagship service, The Super Chief, was named to evoke the same Native Americans whose territories could not have been seized without the existence of the railroad. The final indignity was to co-opt their images to add glamour and distinction to the product.