“My spine is a track with cold black steel racing on it, a trail of steam and dust following behind, ghost-like. It feels like my whole life is holding its breath.” —The Boston 395 (loc. 23)
As I rode the rails of The Boston 395 by Jason Derr, I felt the angst, the pain, and the confusion of its central character, James. The train in this short novel is simultaneously setting and metaphor for James’ emotional and spiritual journey. Derr’s theological training is evident but subtle.
Derr’s style offers depth and complexity that makes this a challenging read without giving it full focus. Far from the lightweight read of a mass market movie or TV-inspired science fiction, this novel deserves multiple reads.
His life is in a shambles, James has returned home to his mother’s living room. A heavy sense of failure is exacerbated by his empathy for the change his presence forces on her lifestyle. In an American economy with a lack of jobs that adequately support the payments on student loan payments, many will identify with James. He has followed all the rules for success. He’s gone to college and was engaged to marry, only to now find himself sleeping on his mother’s couch.
James’ journey on a train that inexplicably shows up in his mother’s living room takes him to various moments in his life. These moments are stops on his trip. Derr’s transition between James’ internal angst (and processing) represented by the train and the real life events is extremely subtle. The temporary reader confusion created by the author with this technique, powerfully ushers the reader into James’ own confusion about his life.
One of the most poignant stops on James’ train trip is the death of his father. Though he has shown up at the hospital of his dying father, James leaves to shower. He misses the family circle around his father as he dies. He learns of the death in a cold house by himself.
I can feel death, like walking through a spider web, crossing through a house’s cold spot. I can feel myself drip away, die. My mind wanders, life crosses before my eyes and I just desire to Not Be Here, to be elsewhere, to not cry and not be sad.
I can only cry a little bit longer, a little louder, a sobbing death rattle, enveloped in the ancient ruins of my life. Days pass by, shifting slowly over the week like water. Wakes become funerals become going home to feel like a shell, empty and brittle like a teacup. (loc. 858-860)
Derr uses the father’s death stop, and the others, combined with James’ time within The Boston 395 to reveal a simple truth. The subtle train to life-moment transitions and the depth and complexity of descriptions create a context within which the simple truth, when it is revealed, is a surprise.