The Drift

by John Ridley

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613

No doubt, to most Americans the subculture of tramps and hoboes who spend their lives “riding the rails,” is a complete unknown. Perhaps some people might have a vague, romanticized view of the “happy hobo,” a man not weighed down by responsibility and cares, who is free to travel where he wills, carrying all that he owns on his back. However, if the happy hobo ever existed, he is not to be found in the pages of John Ridley’s The Drift, which shows the dark reality of the lives of those who choose, or who are forced into, riding the rails. It is not a life to be envied. Violence of the worst, almost unimaginable kind, seems to be routine, as are hunger, fear, and degradation.

This is also a subculture with its own vocabulary. Rail police are “bulls”; local homeless and tramps are “home guard”; the temporary shacks made up of whatever comes to hand is the tramp’s “jungle”; clambering aboard a freight train is “catching out”; getting “lifted” is attaining a drug-induced high; “diving” is digging into garbage cans for food; “tagging” is giving someone else the nickname by which they are known on the rails (“San Francisco Mad Boy,” for example). It is a subculture with its own class stratifications; hoboes (or ’boes) and tramps are of a higher order than mere bums or home guard, largely because the former travel, whereas the latter just stay where they are.

The reader’s guide through this maze of violence, deprivation, and perversion is Brain Nigger Charlie. Brain Nigger used to be Charles Harmon, a man who would have appeared to have had everything anyone could want. As a black man he had succeeded in white society to a degree that most of his race could only envy: He was a tax lawyer for a Big Eight accounting firm in Los Angeles; he lived with his attractive wife Beverly in the affluent suburb of Woodland Hills; and they possessed all the consumer luxuries that accompany an upper-middle-class lifestyle. The trouble came when Beverly got pregnant. Charles could not face the responsibilities of fatherhood and was haunted by a recurring nightmare of a baby with a third, blue eye in its cheek. He took to drinking, then to designer drugs, and got fired from his job. Beverly kicked him out of his home, and before long he was not only homeless but also penniless. He decided to get out of Los Angeles by riding the rails. Staying high on drugs for as long as he could helped him to avoid sleep, which he dreaded because of the nightmare of the black baby with the third blue eye.

Several times in the course of the novel, Charles, or Brain Nigger Charlie as he became, refers to that freak blue-eyed baby of his nightmares. Perhaps the significance of this is that he felt guilty for assimilating so easily into white culture, as if he had betrayed some essential characteristic of his race by doing so. Brain Nigger becomes a rail rider because he seeks that elusive quality of freedom. In his former life he felt that he was nothing more than a collection of other people’s expectations. His repeated refrain is “Freedom is what the rails are for.” The reader might well feel that if riding the rails is freedom, Brain Nigger is welcome to it. It is hard to imagine anyone being sufficiently deluded or desperate to think that riding around aimlessly in a freight car, at the mercy of whatever fate may bring, is a condition of freedom. Yet the...

(This entire section contains 1613 words.)

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notion occurs repeatedly in the novel. A white teenager, whom Brain Nigger tags Stupid Bitch Dumbass, has just started to ride the rails in search of wider horizons than his dull existence in Ohio, training to be an auto mechanic, allowed him. He tells Brain Nigger that his life in Ohio was like living in a tiny box that was getting smaller and smaller, crushing the life out of him. (Stupid Bitch Dumbass ends up probably dead, his hand severed by Brain Nigger in self-defense.) The teenage girl Corina, also a new rail rider, has a similar desire to escape the confines of her Milwaukee upbringing. She writes to her uncle, a former rail rider named Chocolate Walt, that on the rails she is lonely, but she gives the term a positive meaning: “It’s lonely so I can hear myself think. . . . It’s lonely, but in a beautiful way . . . alone is really just being all one. . . . I feel that, out here, I’m all one with me. . . . I feel real good.”

Events in the novel will soon undermine this philosophical equilibrium that Corina claims to have discovered, but even a hardened rail policeman like Haxton Boole, with whom Brain Nigger meets up in the course of his travels, cannot free himself from a romanticized view of what riding the rails is like. He contrasts his own life, weighed down by mortgage payments and with a wife to support, with what he imagines Brain Nigger’s life to be: “Go where you want, do what you want. See a train, catch out, ride to wherever.” In a piece of trite philosophizing, Haxton opines that what a man really wants is not more and more material possessions, but freedom, “Freedom to travel the world or sit on his ass just as equally.” Brain Nigger attempts to disabuse him of this notion by informing him that a man obtains his kind of freedom only by walking away from everything in his life and then forever wishing that he could get it all back.

Brain Nigger then gives Haxton his first experience of a drug trip, courtesy of ketamine hydrochloride, an animal tranquilizer known as “Lady K.” It gives Haxton a taste of another kind of freedom, a “trip” which Brain Nigger tells him is the equivalent of a near death experience (NDE). Apparently this NDE is a highly pleasurable experience, and Brain Nigger is therefore addicted to his Ladies K and E (the latter is the drug Ecstasy) since they mask the fact that his life as a rail rider, fake philosophizing notwithstanding, is the opposite of free. In fact, it seems to be one long NDE.

It did not take Brain Nigger long to find this out. In his early days as a rail rider, he was regularly raped and beaten up by those stronger and more ruthless than he. This changed, albeit temporarily, when he was befriended by an old black tramp called Chocolate Walt, who taught him essential survival skills. Brain Nigger also acquired a friend in the form of George Plimpton, who is not a person but a four-foot-long “goonie stick” that Brain Nigger uses to devastating effect when occasion demands. George Plimpton looks just like a walking stick made out of wood, but in fact it is lined with metal. It makes a fearsome weapon, and Brain Nigger is soon giving out more punishment than he takes (although in the course of the novel, the score seems to be about even, since Brain Nigger also has to take some merciless beatings, not least at the hands of a nasty little FBI agent armed with a stun gun). By the time he has been a rail rider for some years, Brain Nigger is often on the edge that divides sanity from insanity, and he develops a habit of talking to George Plimpton and even receiving instructions from him. George Plimpton is a goonie stick with a will and a voice of its own.

Brain Nigger’s interactions with his chief bodyguard and friend give John Ridley the opportunity for some comic writing—which comes surprisingly often in such a gritty, hard-nosed novel. Here for example, is the novel’s opening paragraph: “George Plimpton was up, angry. Doing work. George was a badass. George was a head smacker. And though some tried, George Plimpton was not to be trifled with.” It is some time before the reader realizes that George Plimpton is not a man but a stick. Brain Nigger never emerges from the dark shadows of the rail rider’s life, although at one point he makes an ill-fated effort to do so. Nevertheless, he is in other ways a changed man as a result of the experiences he goes through. In his quest for Corina, which he undertakes at the request of her uncle, Chocolate Walt, he finds some sense of purpose.

Corina, a light-skinned black girl, has managed to get herself involved with a drug-running gang on the notoriously racist High Line. This is in the northwest of the country, centering on Spokane, Washington. Brain Nigger shows much persistence and considerable physical courage as he pursues his goal of finding her and bringing her home. Eventually he finds out that Corina is a long way from being the sweet little innocent girl he had believed her to be, but this does not matter. At the end of the novel he has found some kind of hope. He still dreams of the child he abandoned, and he still sees the third eye in the baby’s cheek, but it is no longer blue but brown. Perhaps this suggests that somehow in the course of his terrifying experiences on the rails, Brain Nigger has become more true to himself than he ever was when he was a tax lawyer for the accounting firm in Los Angeles. He will never be Charles Harmon again, but at least he can be an authentic Brain Nigger.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (August, 2002): 1888.

Kirkus Reviews 70 (July 15, 2002): 989.

Library Journal 127 (August, 2002): 145.

Publishers Weekly 249 (August 26, 2002): 41.