i suspect i've been pre-ordained to like Vollmann. by the time you hear he's a graduate of Deep Springs College, a mysterious all-boys only two-year program that then puts the graduates into harvard, yale, chicago etc., and then that he bounced around Afghanistan before Osama bin Laden showed up, it's clear this is an outlaw intellect, a minstrel writer. in some deep-in-the-Rocky mountains cowboy college, friendships are born and the plumbs of one's soul tried. Deep Springers are required by the college compact (tuition is free), to grow their own food, brand their own calves, groom their own horses. the connection between soil, beef, the ranch is supposed to forever imprint its graduates with a separation from society, an appreciation for the depths of one's soul; probably Republican politics.
based on this "legend" factor, I've kept an eye on whatever Deep Springs impact has had on my own life (very little). one guy I met knew how to Tuvanian throat sing and majored in classics (another 'deep soul' subject). the other is, so to speak, Vollmann, who I haven't met per se, but probably been name dropped thirty times before I read a single word of his. so objectively I didn't know all of the DS mystique, i guess I would find this a competent 3/5 "magazine article" as another reviewer called it. however, since Vollmann is Vollmann and irreplaceable, 4/5.
a bright guy rides the rails, soliloquizes the mountains the skies, tries a bit to sell the idea of freedom. the random railriders and hitchhikers Vollmann meets are not glorified into 'beatific holymen' that Kerouac did in the 1950s, but they are not entirely dismissed as layabouts and workshirkers middle america finds them.
there are dissenters-- but the short book does work, is a competent+ piece of work