Book Review of Tin Lizard Tales: Reflections From A Train by Schuyler T. Wallace
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 5/26/08
Upon reading this book, there are several ways in which it could be classified. On one hand, it is definitely travel writing, and yet it is also a compiled memoir broken down into separate essays—which discuss not only Wallace’s actual month long trip but a history of all the places he and his wife visited, the food that they ate, the people they encountered. So in other words, it is a little bit of everything.
The book begins with Wallace and his wife Carol leaving for a month long trip by train, or as the back of the book notes, “a train trip provides the opportunity to blow off steam.” Starting off from Bakersfield, California, he and his wife travel to Fort Morgan, to Chicago, to New York City, and then Toronto, (with some added places in between) and along the way, not only are readers given glimpses into their travels, but Wallace goes as far as to provide readers with a brief history lesson on each place he visits in addition to his funny observations and minor annoyances along the way. This book has one of the funniest and entertaining narrations—certainly for a travel memoir—that I’ve read. He talks about his wife’s “tiny bladder” (something I’m very sympathetic to) and isn’t shy about voicing his straightforward opinions about poor customer service, the homeless, Howard Stern, MTV’s Jackass, pollution, to the meat packing industry.
Reading it, you will come away learning at least one thing (if not many) that you might not have known before. When reading about Chicago, for example, he devotes several sections talking about the miserable working life at the Union Stock Yard, and also the Great Fire. He also mentions a brief history about the Chicago White Sox and specifically how “Shoeless” Joe Jackson got his name. While that might be common knowledge for many, for a sports dunce like myself, I indeed got a refresher course and learned something new. See what I mean?
It was also interesting to read his summation on what happened on 9/11 in New York City (it’s been a few years) as though you might be an objective observer unfamiliar with the specificities behind the events. Having worked as a fire chief, he has many opinions about the rescue missions performed by the NYC rescuers as well as the public’s reactions and criticisms to them. One of the reasons this chapter struck me is that the knowledge of 9/11 is somewhat taken for granted, in the sense that writers keep in mind that readers will have their own story from that particular day—which is true, but in 20 years this will certainly not be the case. Yet, given this brief recap of the event from the angle of a fire chief allowed me to read about the event as though I was experiencing it for the first time, this hard to believe thing that soon will become, like the Great Chicago Fire, one of those far away events in history. So in other words, Wallace very much acts as your tour guide, even though he’s the tourist, and readers will be, well, tourists as well.
For example, here is one of the comments he makes when discussing graffiti:
If you own a building or a fence with a large inviting surface and are constantly erasing someone’s obscene scribbling, your opinion of its artistic appeal would probably be somewhat jaded. On the other hand, if you’re the person participating in nightly forays involving stealth, defiance, and a stained forefinger, you probably think the artwork is of museum quality. To someone like me, caught in the middle between the wall and the finger, it all looks the same—like crap.
It is these forthright observations and matter of fact approach that makes this book such an enjoyable read. He’s also not afraid to poke fun of himself as “the tourist” and well, a man of certain needs. Consider this example:
After a few days of travel on a train with a bathroom about the size of an ironing board cabinet, I have some real business to attend to. I excuse myself and head downstairs to a bathroom with a full-size toilet. I make a large deposit (I’m trying to be delicate here) but when I flush, the water comes up instead of going down, and it keeps coming up. I’ve plugged up the (expletive deleted) toilet! I find a plunger but after several hundred strokes and additional overflows, I see that more drastic measures are called for, like maybe a stick of dynamite. I reluctantly drag back upstairs, where there is laughter and joyous conversation, soon to be dulled by sad news.
As you can see, when he discusses life situations as these, he does it with humor and wit. Of course don’t let this passage fool you entirely, for there are many moments when Wallace speaks seriously about Exxon, PITA, slaughterhouses, and the putrid smell of the Hudson River. He comes across as a straight-shooting, yet warm and empathetic guy. I have read a number of travel memoirs over the years, and much of the time they run the risk of dulling the reader with incessant facts and description, or relaying the details of the trip sans humor, and can often come across as pompous towards those who might not have had the opportunity—either financial or otherwise, to travel. Wallace does none of that. Reading this, you get a sense of a genuine person who merely wishes to share his adventure with you. “Our adventure together begins,” he states at the end of his prologue.
Why this book was not picked up by a larger press I do not know, given the many poorly written travel books that are really just masks for New Age psychobabble being published by major houses. This of course is not to disparage Outskirts, but given that this book is better written and not laced with the sort of agenda mentioned above, who knows. I myself know the crap world of publishing more than most.
Having said all that, I encourage readers to seek out Tin Lizard Tales (especially if you are planning a trip) because it really is an enjoyable read, and a work that carries the best teacher: good common sense.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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