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 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...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)