Books

Murder on the Coast Starlight

How I Survived a 37-Hour Amtrak Nightmare

Robert Ullman

Shortly after I won the debate over whose carry-on would stay inside our roomette and whose would sit downstairs in the sleeper car, a new debate began as to whose laptop would be plugged into the wall outlet and who would be SOL when their charge ran out. I let my husband have that one, as the only thing he'd brought to entertain himself for our 29-hour train trip from Seattle to central California was a bunch of New York Times crossword puzzles he'd downloaded. Ever the highbrow.

Twenty-nine hours is a ridiculous amount of time to sit on a train, especially when we could have flown for only four bucks more. We're still newlyweds, so we thought a scenic train trip would be a more romantic way to travel, especially with the private room and sleeping quarters. Clearly, we were a couple of maroons.

I pulled out the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly and flipped to an article titled "Paperback Writer," a profile of Harlan Coben, one of those authors who's made a mint off the books-you-find-at-the-airport genre. The article claimed that despite Coben's being ignored by the literary establishment—the New York Times Book Review has never given Coben even a capsule review—his thrillers are impossible to put down. It was a long profile, but I enjoyed it, and before our return trip home, I picked up a copy of his latest paperback, Promise Me.

Thank Christ I did.

We boarded our return train and shit went sideways pretty quickly. The trip south had been novel and surprisingly plush. Now we were shoehorned into the last roomette in the lower level of the first sleeping car, surrounded by a boisterous "family suite" featuring a bathroom, four bunks, and four preteens swinging from whatever strap or handle they could get a grip on. The air-conditioning failed. Our little haven became a sweaty torture chamber while just a few cars behind passengers were putting duct tape over their vents lest they freeze to death. I dealt with it just fine until my movies broke. Free to anyone who purchases a first-class ticket is a little handheld movie player. Mine was busted, as was the one I was given to replace it.

I opened up Promise Me and read it cover to cover. It quite possibly saved my sanity—because everything that could go wrong was going wrong. In addition to the swinging boys and the busted movie player and the busted air-conditioning, there was the cold war taking place between trains. Amtrak has the right of way, but the freight trains like to fuck around with Amtrak. Our train stopped so many times in the night I didn't even bother putting my bunk up in the morning; I knew we were never going to see Seattle again.

In not so many words, I told my husband (who had long since tired of the highbrow stuff on his laptop) to go entertain himself somewhere else if he knew what was good for him. Every once in a while he'd return to the gallows, slide the door open a sliver, and ask me if I was enjoying my book—possibly because he cared about my well-being, but more likely because he was hoping to hear that I did in fact enjoy it so he could exclaim, "Aha!" and once again pronounce me to be "so lowbrow."

Finally we were less than three hours from Seattle, and what happened? The conductor came on and told us that a goddamn freight train had derailed. We had to sit and wait—and wait, and wait—until that mess got cleared. My husband told me later that when he'd heard the announcement he'd pictured my brain exploding, the walls and windows of our roomette dripping with blood and brain matter. Actually, I was relieved, not only because I was so into Promise Me, but also because the train I'd taken to Oregon in June had come to an abrupt stop after we ran over a hick kid taking a country stroll on the tracks with his headphones on. I think about that kid sometimes. Sure hope he was listening to his favorite song.

No one gets hit by trains in Coben's book, although there is a lot of brain matter flying around and characters meet grim, imaginative ends at an alarming rate. People don't just fuck each other over in Promise Me, they FUCK EACH OTHER OVER. Coben's books can be separated into two categories: the Myron Bolitar stories and the stand alones. Promise Me is one of the former. (His new hardback, The Woods, is one of the latter.) After a six-year gap, Promise Me reintroduces Myron Bolitar, former NBA first-draft pick whose basketball career ended with a knee injury. Bolitar is now a professional sports agent/lawyer/private investigator who finds himself in dangerous predicaments—murder, serious beat downs, etc. Myron's smart mouth and his WASPy sidekick Win's good looks and deadly force reduce their foes to, at best, sobbing grown men who'll need years of physical therapy. And speaking of therapy, at age 32, Myron still lives with his parents in New Jersey; and Win, who lives in Manhattan's famed Dakota building, has sex only with call girls.

In no way am I suggesting that you should load up on Coben's books and read them all in, say, two weeks—the way I did. You quickly realize that the author's method for success is repetition. The characters are recycled; they just have different names. There will always be two goons sent out to tail and then rough up the protagonist, there are always martial arts, and the women always fall into one of three categories: the dead girl, the tomboy, or the knockout. Okay, so maybe I'm lowbrow. But twists and turns and thrills like you find in Promise Me are much more rewarding than someone pondering their own protracted coming of oh-my-god-would-you-just-get-there-already age. Throw one of Coben's books into your carry-on in case some unforeseen hell breaks loose. It just might keep your head from exploding, or at the very least (say, for those of us who thought a train trip might be romantic) keep you from making the kinds of glib remarks that land you in divorce court. recommended

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