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A Surreal Comedy of Manners

By kpbstevens, member

May 27, 2011: The day is coming when genre categorizations will collapse around our ears. No one would shove a copy of The Master and Margarita into the fantasy section of a Barnes and Nobles, although it has many things in common with the glossy books that you would find there – talking cats, the devil, levitation. But Bulgakov’s masterpiece is given the honor of being considered surrealistic social satire instead of fantasy. The same could be said for Dan Leo’s Railroad Train to Heaven. I realize that by making this comparison I am entering into the whimsical game that Mr. Leo plays at the start of every episode. He gives us an overblown imaginary quote from Harold Bloom, taken from the pages of the most unlikely magazines possible.

“Little did we oh-so-earnest literati of the latter half of the twentieth century know that a former brakeman for the Reading Railroad by the name of Arnold Schnabel was calmly composing, in complete obscurity, that massive memoir which we now recognize as the great American epic.”—Harold Bloom, in Better Homes and Gardens.

This is a joke with intent, a little party game that sets the tone for Railroad Train to Heaven as a whole. The work is presented as the autobiography of one Arnold Schnabel, a man of long errands and gordian social entanglements. Arnold is recovering from a nervous breakdown, which may account for his penchant for visiting heaven, entering into contests with the devil, and allowing time to work at a radically different pace than it normally does. The story is set, at least terrestrially, in Cape May, N.J., in the summer of 1963.

I came to Railroad Train to Heaven very late in the game. I’ve been reading it for about two months now, and haven’t gone back to the beginning. Reading it has been my first major involvement with internet serial fiction, and I wanted my engagement with it to be different from my engagement with short stories or novels. A nice little episode delivered to me every week, which I can read with pleasure without thinking that I really should undertake the Herculean labor of becoming a completist. The average post is 2,000 words, which means that, after two-hundred and fifty-one episodes, Railroad Train to Heaven is nearly as long as War and Peace.

Fortunately, Arnold Schnabel’s narration doesn’t require much back story to be enjoyable. This is a minor miracle in itself. As Arnold wanders around Cape May, he runs into multiple characters whom, I assume, he and the reader have met before. But Dan Leo’s individual descriptions of these characters are so precise and compelling that they never get lost in the welter of personalities. This is a particular strength in the writer of internet-based serial fiction. A scrupulous attention to detail and the ability to describe clearly will get you far and help you avoid the besetting sin of any fiction, that of annoying the reader.

Internet-based serial fiction, whether it’s blog fiction or Podiobooks or anything else, is as much about the author’s personality as it is about the story. When I sit down at my computer every week and contemplate opening up Railroad Train to Heaven I have only one real question for myself. Do I want to spend time with Dan Leo? I’m not worrying about what’s happened to Arnold, since I know that he will still be meandering from place to place without any major complications (his story arc, while not being static, is only slightly convex). It is the way in which Dan Leo tells his story – the pithiness of the language, the flow of the dialog, the underlying humor – which brings me back for more.

I realize that, in the course of this review, I’ve compared Leo with two Russians. Like the great Russians, Leo is writing about a particular society, and his intent is simply to describe it. None of his characters seem to suffer from social isolation or post-modern confusion. They all co-exist happily with each other in a cocktail-laced mid-sixties style bonhomie. Railroad Train to Heaven is, essentially, a comedy of manners, one that is generous to the reader in a way that is, simply, mannerly.

5 of 5 members found this review helpful.
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I Enjoyed It

By Jim Zoetewey, editor, author of The Legion of Nothing

Jan 9, 2009: So first of all, I should mention that I like Dan Leo’s writing. It’s clear and effective. The characters have different voices. There’s some humor, and occasionally satire.

The two stories of his that I’ve read both take place in the 1960’s and not only do they try to get the details of the period right, but he actually includes links to youtube videos of television and pictures relevant to the story.

Railroad Train to Heaven tells the story of Arnold Schnabel, a railway brakeman recovering from a mental breakdown.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Schnabel either shouldn’t have been committed to a mental institution in the first place or he definitely isn’t better. One way or another, he receives regular supernatural visitations (or hallucinations).

At the same time it’s also interesting to watch him become involved in the lives of people around him. Previous to the story, he apparently lived alone with his mother (he’s 42) and occupied himself with work and poetry, but not other human beings.

I’m not completely sure where the story is going. That’s not a complaint. I find it interesting, but it’s interesting if you find the day to day life of the main character interesting. He’s definitely on some sort of personal journey (whether or not he realizes it) and where it will end isn’t obvious.

I look forward to reading more.

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Railroad to Nowhere

By G.S. Williams, author of No Man An Island

Nov 27, 2008: "Railroad to Heaven" is ostensibly the diary of a former railroad employee, circa 1963, after some sort of mental breakdown.

"Arnold Schnabel" is supposed to become a historical figure, a great poet. But both the poetry and the prose leave much to be desired. Diary reading is dull in general, but here it’s worse, because the diarist mentions interesting things without ever showing scenes. Written at a remove from events, the text inevitably leaves me, as a reader, feeling emotionally removed from what’s happening.

The writing itself is best described by its own poetry:

People often ask me, “Where do you get
Your inspiration from, a brand new poem
Every week, fifty-two weeks a year yet?”
It’s really not so hard, or so I tell them,
Not so hard at all once the poet learns
That no one really cares how well he writes,
That it doesn’t matter if his spirit burns
Or hides like a dog through Byzantine nights;
This poet is incapable of writing well
Anyway, but even if he were, it still
Wouldn’t matter; very few of us can tell
The difference between ambrosia and swill.
And that’s okay; now he is ready to sing.
Nothing stands in his way; not a thing.

The author seems willing to keep swinging, which I can respect. However, thus far the text is closer to swill than ambrosia.

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