What Forbes is after is not easily achieved: he seeks to portray both a society in crisis and the life of a person who, in crisis himself, still strives to draw public attention to the social crisis in hopes of saving, if not himself, at least that society. Derail This Train Wreck is a ray of light in a world going dark.
Derail This Train Wreck is a book of our times. It has elements of the near future dystopian tale so popular in our times. Its political satire veers between the somberly apocalyptic vision of a Truthout piece and the tongue in cheek irony dripping humor of an article from The Onion. And its domestic/romantic plot line (a failed relationship and the struggle of the parties to reorient their lives) is the stuff of which our lives and those of many we know is made. That Daniel Forbes has been able to weave this disparate elements into a narrative that is not simply cohesive but compelling is to his great credit – and the reader’s delight.
The story follows events in the life of one Mitchell Fremson, a New Yorker who is, to use one of the terms popular in current discussions of the Fourth Estate, a “citizen journalist.” Fremson writes regularly about an issue familiar to any citizen of our times: the growing power (and abuse of that power) of the police state. His work, done largely for progressive/leftist blogs, has made Fremson a grudgingly admired figure among his peers – and a “person of interest” to a country under the sway of laws and policies that are logical (and terrifying) extensions of the behaviors sanctioned by the Patriot Act and programs like Total Information Awareness. Professionally, Fremson is floundering; personally, his life is falling apart. His soon to be ex-wife has abandoned the “good fight” to pursue a successful if soulless career with a Manhattan advertising firm.
In the face of such a personal crisis, Fremson does what any logical, sensible person would do: he goes to Penn Station with a back pack full of books (titles such as 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, and Mein Kampf – works meant to make a political statement) with the idea that he’ll refuse a demand by one of the numerous security patrols to search his backpack – in other words, assert his 4th Amendment rights in the face of increasing police abuse of those rights. His plan is to write an article based on his confrontation that will, he hopes, raise public awareness about the erosion of their civil rights – and perhaps make enough of a name for himself to win back his lost wife.
It all goes horribly wrong. Rounding a corner, Fremson accidentally crashes into a Transit Authority policeman, bloodying his nose. Outraged, the cop (who is suffering from PTSD as a result of military service in the Mideast) accelerates the situation, draws his weapon and opens fire. Fremson’s head is creased by a bullet; a beautiful young woman (the fiancee of a firefighter) is more seriously injured. Subsequently, the Transit police initiate a smear campaign against Fremson; in his efforts to clear himself he becomes aware of corrupt police funding measures designed to enrich some parties while further eroding the rights of citizens.
Much comes as a result of these events which, in fairness to author and reader, I will not share. Suffice to say that Derail This Train Wreck reaches a powerful climax.
I would be remiss if I did not take a little space to discuss Forbes’ writing. One reviewer has compared his work to Evelyn Waugh and J. P. Donleavy. I think it would be more on point to say that Forbes’s storytelling style echoes other writers with a New York sensibility: at times he reminds one of Salinger, at times of Saul Bellow. Mitch Fremson has the same neurotic, quixotic spirit one encounters in Moses Herzog and Holden Caulfield. One would not be wrong, I think, to think of Mitch Fremson as a catcher in the rye who spends a lot of time in his head trying to figure out how to communicate both his rage at the perversion of his nation’s government even as he tries to solve his domestic problems. It makes for a complex narrative that moves beyond the simplistic dystopian thriller and raises Derail This Train Wreck to the level of literary achievement.