What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

Field-Tested by Daniel Radosh

on a train between Chicago and Portland

On a train from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, it's a toss-up as to which is the better way to see America: through the high, rounded windows of the observation car or the pages of Stegner's 1971 masterpiece. Each keeps you shuttling back and forth through time. You lose yourself in the romance of the old West, only to wake up around the next bend in an exquisitely melancholy present of faded glory bordering on decrepitude.

Both Angle of Repose and the Empire Builder chug steadily westward, and though they cross paths only briefly, in Idaho, the general terrain covered is the same. So when the train's scratched, Plexiglass windows fuzz up the landscape, the book's crystalline prose sharpens the view. “Ahead she saw five parallel spurs of mountain, as alike as the ridges of a plowed field but huge and imperious, plunging down into the canyon.” The elegant writing transforms the vistas rattling past until you are no longer merely seeing sights, but truly journeying. You want to grab your fellow passengers, snatch away their trashy mystery novels (which you might quite enjoy on some other occasion), and press Stegner into their hands. This is the time for a book that pulls you deeper into your surroundings, not one that distracts you from them. But you also want to keep it to yourself. Who knows if those other people deserve it? That girl at your table at dinner seemed kind of racist.

The trip lasts 46 hours, or 569 pages. And this might be the deciding factor: only one feels like it's over too soon.

Daniel Radosh is a freelance writer and author of Rapture Ready! He blogs at his website.

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