“Two Wanderers in America”: Katie Nolan’s memoir Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter, reviewed by Dave Karp

Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter, a strikingly singular dual memoir about a retired philosophy professor and her Depression-era, rail-riding hobo father, begins with a secret, one that darkens the father’s future life and that overshadows his daughter’s life as well. That secret drives the dual narrative. There is the father, Bud, narrating his impoverished hobo wanderings and exploits both before and after his time on a Southern chain-gang, where the act of violence he must keep secret and that will impel the rest of his life occurs. Then there is his daughter, Katie Nolan, describing a train trip she takes to see some of the places to which her father traveled, not so much for nostalgia’s sake as to understand herself. Repeatedly, she tries to understand the gap between herself and the people in her life and to explain to herself the largely unmitigated personal and sexual disaster of her relationships with men. Separate though this story is from the father’s tale, the two narratives counterpoint each other well, as both are full of impeccably rendered incident, both are rich in striking reflections and revelations, both are explicitly working-class and down to earth, and both are as political as they are personal.

Bud’s narrative dominates the book and will probably attract the most readers; there is so much about it to take in that is gritty and vivid. There are meals made up of pilfered chickens and plucked fruit, hobo “jungles” full of hardened souls and incipient radicals, struggles to fend off hunger and cold and to find a bit of work, the omnipresent threat of violence from railroad “bulls” and local police. In the midst of a pandemic and the new, deep recession it has caused, and in the midst of demonstrations where we are trying to push forward some notion of the common good and of justice across racial, class and cultural lines, the story of a poor “’bo” “decking” trains, trying to hold onto hope and to make and hold onto enough money to settle down is more than just a quaint recollection. It’s a story about survival, physical survival to be sure, but also the struggle to keep alive mentally, spiritually and morally, to fend off “that inner ache, that pain below the heart.” Bud maintains his veneer of gumption and good humor, but we sense how he deeply he is pained by his life, and how deeply his past gnaws at him, so that trust and transparency come hard to him. There are many friendships in Bud’s world, a few romances, some more transactional than real, and when a chance for something more comes along, for a lasting, stable life with a woman, we see how Bud both grabs at the chance but ends up hiding part of himself in the process. The need to hide both crime and shame from those he loves, to hold back what he feels from everyone but his daughter, is dug in too deep.

That problem runs in the family. Katie Nolan’s narrative focuses more on marriage, friendship and romance than on physical deprivation, but, if anything, her narrative seems more troubled, her accounts thoughtful, frank but uncertain and somewhat disassociated from the journey she is taking. What gives her story its energy is naked thought: it’s Katie Nolan’s honesty that enlivens things, makes us wince and laugh as she circles back again and again to figure out how she can solve the puzzle of her romantic catastrophes and constitutional isolation. At different points, at different stops on the train, she meditates on her heroic myth-making about her father, on past humiliations and violations, on her string of bad choices in alcoholic men, on her own and her partner’s problems with oral sex, on the emptiness of “disconnected hormonal sex,” on the struggle to make herself understood and to understand friends and colleagues, on casual sexism and classism, on philosophical perceptions of freedom, Western and Eastern. All the while, she is challenged by emails, letters, phone calls from friends and acquaintances and by repeated prompting by her mentor, a writing instructor who responds to each one of her forays into self-revelation in pretty much the same way: “I just don’t buy it … there’s something you’re leaving out.”

The challenge to discover what she is leaving out, and how her father Bud will make it off the road, keeps us turning the pages of Confessions, but the writing in this book is part of what makes the experience compelling. Bud’s story is vividly fleshed out. His account of his initial act of violence, “I had the urge to vomit as the bar met the skull and I heard the bone splinter,” immediately stops us short. Later there is the tense, terse drama of his digging himself out of a snowbound sheepherder’s tent, of his tentative romances and the aches and pains of the road, all of which have the oddity of reality. Katie’s evocations of the world around her as she travels, and what it tells her about her past, are invariably striking and insightful: “I am heading to Los Angeles where it rarely snows. The lack of seasons in Southern California changes time and makes it drift. The nine years I spent there, married to my first husband, Wayne, and in my twenties, I lived with a psychological haze that matched the smog.”

There are also flaws in the book, times when the author’s politics, central as it is to what the tale is about, seems put the speakers on a soapbox. Occasionally Bud’s usually impeccable monologues and dialogue falter a bit, and Katie Nolan shows up ventriloquizing her father. But these problems aren’t pervasive or persistent, and we easily pushes past them, caught in what Bud and Katie have to tell us about themselves. Ultimately, I think both the father and daughter tell us something both impressive and disconcerting about being American, about who we are and what history has done to us. Both Bud and Katie are resilient, recalcitrant individuals, both of whom reach out for solidarity and love. Both have a hard time finding them, and what they do find is flawed. Like a lot of us, they sense how much they owe to others, how much they need others, but find that actually being with and trusting someone else is a hard thing. The double telling in Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter is both a testament to and a dissection of that can-do, “pioneer spirit” American individualism, where it comes from and what’s both right and wrong with it.

Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter, by Katie Nolan. Yakima, Washington: Cave Moon Press, July 2019. 251 pages. $14.95, paper.

Dave Karp is associated with Margin Shift, a Seattle, Washington, reading series dedicated to supporting writers outside the mainstream. His articles and reviews have appeared in Golden Handcuffs and Heavy Feather Review.

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