By Anita Kovacevic on January 10, 2016
This book was recommended to me by a friend who knows I like to read serious books. And this is not a fun, beach, snack book. This is a serious meal you need to sink your teeth into and think. The author has decided to tackle plenty of important, real life situations, and it's far easier to dig our heads into reality shows than deal with reality.
As you follow the developments in the life of Mike Dobbs, his transformations and turbulence, cleverly told in first person, you will question his decisions, go with him through his 9-11 experience (excellent scene in the subway and consequences mentioned subsequently), a bitter, cold, dying relationship, utter depression and then - the unexpected change. When Mike drinks, when he is insensitive to the Dennis or Barbara, when he thinks of how to get rid of Eileen and Megan, he is what he is, a traumatised average man hardened by the alienation of modern life, yet doomed to reluctant kindness, generosity and heroism when face to face with a person in real trouble. It's the damaged souls guiding damaged souls, like the blind leading the blind, but still sticking together. There is good in us humans, despite the bad in us. Mike is the kind of hero I like - almost an antihero, an accidental hero who never sees himself as such because he himself is so rundown and empty that even the author makes no excuses for him. All the characters are realistic and intriguing, even the five-second appearances (the girl in the cybercafe, the innkeeper couple in a small town), and their psychology is really well-expressed, shown, not preached. I will not divulge my favourites to avoid spoilers.
The cover itself is not a compromising one - there is no couple to inspire romantic notions, although a huge portion of the story deals with relationships - romantic, family and friendships. There is no blood gushing, although the story is far from a gentle one. The title is not only an important literal image in the story, but also a metaphor, and the railroad puns and analogies woven into the plot have been placed there naturally, almost unnoticeably, yet emphasizing the message, using both the positive and negative connotations of it (travelling, discovering your paths, traditional settings, as opposed to being derailed, railroaded, cheated and defeated, whether by cunning or violence, etc.)
The initial chapters are not your average writing style and popular writers' vernacular, which grabbed my attention with plenty of interesting lines and expressions, which obviously come naturally and follow the events without distracting the reader. This style blends into more action in the second part of the book, as the story itself twists and turn that way. I enjoyed the excellent, flowing dialogues, quite an original line of thinking, and blending dialogue and character's thoughts seamlessly yet clearly defined. The language flows with impact, sometimes even like an old black-and-white detective movie or even a movie done in comic-book style.
The Railroad is a book not easily-digested, because of the topic - heavy, gruesome subjects people want to avoid but need to talk about and read about. You will want to drop it at times, because it might hit too close to home, but as soon as you put it down, you will want to get back to it. You will want to see how it turns out. Alienation, terrorism, child abuse, disfunctional marriages, detached relationships, dying friendships, inadequacy in the simplest intimate situations, post-traumatic stress, loneliness, disregard for common decency, system failures, bribe and the cowardice of laws, alcoholism, conformity... There are no comic reliefs, the readers will not be pampered with easily-digestible scenes or easy, rose-coloured romance, and Mike's battle is constant and relentless. At times there is even an unusual, erratic pace of telling events, showing the mess in Mike's mind and soul, all strongly tied into the plot as the web thickens towards the end. After the entire ordeal, you will wonder whether Mike continued the search out of bravery, stubborness, pure love, madness or the simple need for closure. But hang in there - like life, it is all worth it. There is nothing average about Mike - the average person stays away or gives in. Mike doesn't.
The ending might surprise you, and goes to prove that the most unlikely heroes, the ones who don't go looking for it, are the ones who do chage the world, one act at a time. There is a slight feeling of bitterness and injustice, knowing Mike's sacrifice. But then again, the loveliest roses need thorns.