Can you withstand all ten reasons to buy Wire to Wire? Test your willpower. I’ll add a new reason every day until you head down to the freight yard or fall in love with a woman who sniffs glue. But it would be easier (and more enjoyable) if you just bought the book.
Reason #1: Rose.
Part-time dispatcher for the county sheriff, a gay woman in a small town, able to see through all bullshit. Calls Slater and Harp “the two penises.” Verbally, she’s the only character who is a match for Charlie. Rose sometimes criticizes Lane, but it's because she loves her.
“And then there’s Lane,” Rose said. “She’s a sexual dyslexic. First the fucking, then the flirting. But that’s why we love her, right? She drinks straight from the blender.”
Rose is also the only character with a halfway decent handle on love and sex. “Just remember,” she tells Slater. “If you can’t hear the angels sing when you make love, you’re not doing it right.”
Bonus reason: W2W is the only book published this year containing a two-word sentence consisting of the same word twice, used first as a noun, then as a verb. Page 194. Thank you, Tin House, for not editing that out.
What Rose might play after pouring Lane a glass of wine, if only the two penises weren't around: "Baby I'm Yours," by Barbara Lewis.
Wire to Wire is not primarily a train book. There's more going on than that. If you want to read a book that’s thoroughly and totally about trains, stop by the house and I’ll dig out the first draft. (Actually, don’t. Just being rhetorical.)
Still, trains run deeply through W2W—mainly because trains ran through my life when I was growing up. The Penn Central tracks were behind our house in southern Michigan. And my close friend Jesse Burkhardt—later known as Iron Legs Burk—was fascinated by trains. He taught me how to jump them and got us out there on the road. In the years after high school and college, we traveled all across the country by freight.
Those trips later inspired a short story, “New Time,” which eventually led to Wire to Wire. Here’s an excerpt from the story, describing two riders waiting for a hotshot freight they call The Nowhere Special.
“Any train with hoses hooked and fresh orders we rode. Out of Regina, the ride was tame and ordinary, but it wouldn’t stay that way…It would come, The Nowhere Special, in its own rotation with the unit trains, the one-a-days, the turnarounds, the slugs, and we would grab its grabirons when it did.”
Wire to Wire starts in a freight yard in Detroit and ends with crossing bells ringing. The freedom, thrill, and perils of riding freight—all the things I tested myself against, all the things that lit up my younger life—are threaded through the pages of W2W. If the book is an homage to anything, it’s an homage to that.
Bonus reason: When Iron Legs and I were riding, we’d write our freight names on the side of boxcars. Mine appears on p. 175.
An early map: The cross-hatched lines are freight trips I took, alone or with Jesse.
Baby you and I are not the same. (You Better) "Catch Yer Own Train." The Silver Seas.
Wire to Wire is set in a strange and distant time before cellphones, texting, Google, Facebook, rappers, yuppies, CDs, Fox News, and blogging. The Michigan portion takes place in 1978. The frame story in Slater’s New York video editing suite is set in1981.
Harp and Slater and Lane were off the grid in the 70s and early 80s, because for most of us, there was no grid. When you were alone in 1978, you were really alone. We had no iPods, no mp3s, no video games. We only had each other, and often we didn’t have that.
Trains still ran with cabooses in those days, the Ann Arbor railroad ferries crossed Lake Michigan daily, and you could buy a beat-up Ford Ranchero for well under a thousand dollars. Detroit was a city of 1.2 million. Cars were made mostly of metal. Books and records were sold only in stores.
A 1967 Ford Ranchero. (Photo credit: Wikipedia/Bill Wrigley)
Writing in HTMLGiant, the author Joyce Thompson says this about Wire to Wire:
"It took so long for Sparling to find a publisher that this near perfect novel has become historical along the way, an elegy for the relatively innocent 1980s, before the American Midwest became the home of exploding meth labs and McDonald’s-induced obesity, before ubiquitous digital technology made it impossible to truly be alone. So many of our best stories would never have happened if all their characters had iPhones in their pockets. Don’t miss this trip into the recent and unreclaimable national past."
Out of my mind on a Saturday night: The Stooges, “1970.” If you don’t feel alright by the time the sax comes, you never will.
When Michael Slater returns to Wolverine, Michigan, he finds himself torn between two worlds. Harp’s realm is the freight yard and the trains that carry him through the night. Lane inhabits a world of sex—of nights and boundaries soaked in epoxy fumes. The longer Slater stays in Michigan, the more he is caught between those two forces.
Watching images of his past on video monitors three years later, the unsolvable dichotomy is laid out for him again:
“Harp showed Slater all the secrets of the rails—which trains to ride, which cars to jump, and how a fast freight could blow the lines right off the calendar and change your sense of time. But it was Lane who told Michael Slater to start with yes.”
Long before I discovered the structure of Wire to Wire, I knew I wanted to write as powerfully as I could about freight trains: what it feels like to hop them, how they sound up close or inside a car, how big they are. During the freight scenes, I wanted the rhythm of the language to sound like trains.
Since I was going all out with freights, I decided I had to go full strength on Lane’s side as well, on the sexual attraction she holds for Slater. Early on, I had come across the word “isacoustic”—actually, I learned it from one of those word-a-day calendars—and because Slater is a video editor, I thought he might know the word. It means two sounds of equal intensity. In Wire to Wire, freights and sex are meant to be isacoustic.
That said, while the sex scenes to my eye are vivid and hopefully powerful, I don’t think they’re over the top. I admit to a brief period of retrenchment when I did a lot of word-searches and editing in order to make a PG-rated version of the manuscript. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking at the time. I probably still have that version around here somewhere —stop by the house and I’ll dig it out. (Actually, don’t. Joking again.) Anyway, the PG version didn’t work. It upset the balance.
So sex is on the page in Wire to Wire, usually in a scrabbled mess of dark and light, in a tangle of scarves and limbs—and it's both good and bad, in the way that anything powerful can be bad when it gets out of control.
Meanwhile, I keep waiting for some community-minded folks down the road from Sucker Lake to propose banning the book. I wouldn't mind a little notoriety, but so far I’ve had no such luck. Nor did I get invited to speak on the Wordstock Sex Panel, as you already know from my previous post, Sex and Commas. (If you read it again, pay close attention to the seething indignation just under the light, humorous tone.) There are also various “Best Literary Sex Scenes” lists that never seem to include W2W, probably because the listmakers haven’t read Wire to Wire, or have never had sex.
For the night it all goes wrong, and you end up driving to the station in the pouring rain: Randy Newman, "Bad News from Home."
There. I said it.
Not a crime novel.