|She looks like my junior high school librarian, but that's another story|
I have just finished reading a great antidote for the totally effed up era in which we live -- Dan Leo's marvelous Railroad Train to Heaven, a pean to a simpler time when both culture and soda were pop and a self-effacing poet from Northeast Philadelphia by the name of Arnold Schnabel was communing with a chain-smoking Jesus. Conveniently, they both smoked Pall Malls.
Identifying the primary cause of the effed-upedness of the era is a piece of cake (or perhaps a bite of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet) while defining Railroad Train to Heaven is a good deal more challenging: It is a coming-of-age novel not unlike Catcher in the Rye, although Arnold is 42 years old. It has the elements the best pulp of L. Sprague de Camp. The descriptive richness of Marcel Proust. The open tap consciousness of Jack Kerouac. The whimsy of Terry Pratchett. A dollop of Philip K. Dick. Yet it is original.
Railroad Train to Heaven is the first volume of excerpts from Schnabel's sprawling memoir, which he wrote in small copybooks. It opens in the summer of 1963 with Arnold on indefinite leave from the Reading Railroad and recovering from a mental breakdown in the guest house of his three maiden aunts down the shore (as they say in Philly) in the Victorian town of Cape May, New Jersey. Home is the rowhouse neighborhood of Olney in Philadelphia's Near Northeast (a geographic designation long out of vogue) where he lives with his widowed mother and has worked as a brakeman for the Reading since age seventeen. He is an appropriately guilt-burdened Catholic, usher at St. Helena's R.C. Church, ever the gentleman while socially inept, utterly inexperienced in love if not lust, and enjoys writing lyric poetry and drinking Manhattan cocktails and Schaefer's beer.
Familiarly if obscurely known as the Rhyming Brakeman, Arnold has been contributing a small masterpiece of poetry a week (self described as touching on "the ordinary life of ordinary people") to the estimable Olney Times for decades. Ensconced in Cape May, he falls in love for the first time and careens into a series of sometimes hallucinatory experiences with people ordinary and famous, not to mention the ever-in-need-of-a-light Jesus. Space and time are delightfully altered, but Arnold still dutifully submits a poem each week no matter how warped the contours of his not exactly Boswellian life have become.
He is befriend by beatniks after his nightly swim off Cape May Point. They invite him back to their apartment, where he has his first taste of marijuana.
Rocket Man put a record album on. It was a very strange sort of saxophone jazz, strange to me, anyway, who normally never listened to anything stranger than Lawrence Welk or Larry Ferrari, although I guess they're pretty strange too in their own ways.
"You dig coal train, Man?" said Gypsy Dave.
"Coal train?" I asked.
"Yeah, Train, man."
"Yeah, John, coal train."
Now I was totally confused. Why was he calling me John?
I said nothing.
The strange saxophone wailed.
"I think he digs the train," said Rocket Man, coming over to where we were sitting on the floor around one of those great wooden spools that you normally wrap cable around. He sat down, smiling. "Doncha, Arnold. You dig the train, man."
"Well, of course I do," I said, doing one of my little imitations of a sane person. "The train, after all, has really been my whole life -- "
"Your whole life?" said Gypsy Dave. "He was rolling another "joint" on a record album cover. "That is really heavy," he said. "I mean, I dig the train, and the bird too, and you know, a lot of cats, but I wouldn't say they're my life. But the train means that much to you."
Everyone in Cape May (well, at least the townies) knows that Arnold has had a breakdown, and he is chagrined to find that women -- and a cavalry of them chase Arnold through the pages of Railroad Train to Heaven, including the lovely Elektra, a Bohemian jeweler who is his first inamorata -- are attracted to him because of that.
What was it about insanity that women found so appealing?
. . . Why now? Why were all these females emerging from the woodwork only now? Where had they been hiding during all my former grey celibate years? Was I that much different now?
Suddenly in the middle of a flight, in the middle of a step, I halted, panting, sweating.
Yes, I was that different.
Who or what had I been before my breakdown?
I'll tell you what: a sort of walking mummy, mechanically thumping through the world swathed in the thick stale wrappings of a personality that wanted to worship and serve some imaginary great father who had deigned to grant me this half-life I lived.
It took going insane for me to shed those stale wrappings. Perhaps something inside me had willed me to go insane in order to shed those foul rags. But shed them I did, and I walked out of that hospital like a naked child.
Later -- much later -- Arnold is struck by lightning on the beach. He wakes up and Jesus is standing over him with that eternal cigarette in his fingers. They are in front of a wrought-iron gate, beyond which a cobblestone path leads to a very large Victorian house.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"That's my father's house," he said.
"Am I dead?"
"That's a very good question, Arnold."
"You don't know?"
"If I knew for sure, I'd tell you. Between you and me it doesn't look too good, but, look, we'd better go talk to Peter and my old man."
My only complaint with Railroad Train to Heaven: If this were a starred review, I would knock a half a star off the big five because, in contrast to the wonderful storytelling, the typography and formatting of the trade paperback edition has all the sizzle of a 1963 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon.
Dan Leo identifies himself as a professor of classics and physical education at Olney Community College (which yet again did not qualify for a post-season bowl game last year), but I and other readers know him from his most excellent blog, where he has been excerpting Arnold's memoirs since 2007.
Beyond the effed-upedness of the real world, literature today is typically much too derivative. But Railroad Train to Heaven is very, very good. It is truly original, and like great literature, its seemingly simple, laugh-out-loud narrative belies deeper meanings lurking just below the surface of Arnold's fantastical experiences.
Leo promises additional volumes. Arnold never exaggerated, so I have to believe him.