While essentially a book about the joys (and occasional discomforts) of railroad travel in America today, ZEPHYR deals also with a bit of railroad history and lore as well as with the techniques employees use to make the train run smoothly and safely. In fact, Kisor begins his journey not at Union Station, but in the railyards a mile outside the station and several hours prior to departure, in order to show readers the Zephyr being provisioned for the 2,500-mile journey ahead. Readers meet the train chief, its chef, and its head steward and witness their preparations. Kisor interviews these workers about their jobs and their careers on the railroad, and readers come to know them as personalities, not merely as functionaries.
The genius of Kisor, who not incidentally is totally deaf, is to make the disparate elements in the story of this three-day, two-night trip work together and in aid of each other. When readers learn about how the seatings for dinner for 400 people are arranged, for example, it is related through the words and anecdotes of one of the servers. Kisor describes the evolution of onboard dining, memorable meals he experienced over the years, the vagaries of food shortages, the compensatory steps crews take to meet them. We hear the passengers grumbling about their accommodations or marveling at the beauty of the Rockies or Sierra Nevada. In short, Kisor informs as he entertains and vice versa. Both information and entertainment are delightful.
A reader need not be a “railfan” to be delighted; as Kisor notes, the train is America, especially in its Western incarnation.
This tendency to rhapsodize about America constitutes the book’s only real flaw, for though Kisor occasionally digresses at too great a length, he does so, we realize, in service to the story of the railroad. It is a story central to the American psyche and one, ZEPHYR makes clear, not finished yet.
Kisor is a splendid travel guide, neither stuffy nor naive. He is, in many ways, the most intriguing character in the book, and his delight in railroading is thoroughly infectious.