Recently we had a behind-the-scenes discussion about pacing in books, the merits of a slower pace versus a faster pace and all that fun stuff. At the time I was reading The Train from Pittsburgh by Julian Farren and didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. I’ve mentioned before that I have issues with reading during the summer months so pacing is almost a non-issue. But that’s the great thing about books; they never go away.
The Train from Pittsburgh is one book that I wish would have gone away.
I came upon it on an unremarkable day. I was browsing Facebook, as I am wont to do, when it showed up in a post from The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh, a great page that definitely lives up to its name. Anyway, I thought, “Oh, it’s got Pittsburgh in the title. I must read it!”
Looking at that cover, I was hoping for a cheesy, pulpy, noir-y book set in 1950s Pittsburgh. What I got was a book originally published in 1948 about white people drinking in excess and whining about their problems with a sometimes not-so-subtle undercurrent of antisemitism and anticommunism. Like if Archie Bunker had been on Cheers and if it wasn’t hilarious.
The main character, Tom Bridges, is an alcoholic who is cheating on his wife, Ellen, but that’s all right because she’s cheating on him, too. Tom is trying to get a man named Mike Myers (no, not that Mike Myers) a job, but Tom’s boss doesn’t want to hire him because Mike is Jewish. Poor Mike is bringing his entire family on the eponymous train from Pittsburgh to New York because Tom practically guaranteed him a job.
Tom gets lit the same night Ellen throws a big party in their New York home and—sixty-seven-year-spoiler-alert—after all the guests leave, Tom decides he’s going to kill Ellen and then himself. His plan is thwarted when Ellen decides she wants to try to get pregnant again.
In the morning he wakes up with a massive hangover and realizes he’s missed the titular train’s arrival. We’re left with no murder-suicide and the presumption that Mike and his family are wandering the streets of New York City.
Sometimes unlikable characters can be endearing, as Irene pointed out, but these characters were a waste. Their awfulness compounded with the protracted chapters (I’m sorry, but no chapter ever needs to be sixty pages) filled me with dread each time I picked the book up.
It was so awful that I came up with a list of things that I could have been doing instead of reading:
- Finally watch Pink Flamingos
- Watch someone Whip and/or Nae Nae
- Set the time on a VCR
- Find a VCR
- Convince myself I like sports
- Shop for some sweet Affliction deep V-neck shirts
- Finally start a quinoa blog
- Have a conversation online using only Tom Hiddleston .gifs
- Fill myself with delight reading the Common Misconceptions page on Wikipedia
- Picture the actor Mike Myers as Wayne from Wayne’s World as the Mike Myers in the book
- Wonder what it would take for our Port Authority to make a cat its stationmaster
- Come up with an inane list of activities and publish it on a blog with a readership of about one metric ton 
I didn’t do any of those things. I stuck it out because I knew that by reading I was at least engaging my brain. When I finished this book, I didn’t feel like I needed a moment of silence; I felt like I needed to excise the book from me. The next time I get a hankering to read about Pittsburgh in the early part of the last century, I’ll just reread Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.
So, dear readers, I now ask you, how does the pacing of a book affect your desire to read it? Do you prefer a quick pace or a pace where things take their time to unfold? Have you ever wanted to throw a book across the room in frustration of its banality? Let us know in the comments below!