The Last Professional
by Ed Davis
Artemesia Publishing

"You aren’t lookin for a guy, you’re lookin for a scapegoat."

Lynden, a computer programmer until he leaves his job abruptly, is looking for The Tramp—the person who abused him on the rails fifteen years ago. The Duke, a professional Knight of the Road (rail rider), is running from Short Arm, whose secret only The Duke knows. And he is the only one who will ever know if Short Arm gets his way. Along the way, Lynden and The Duke meet other hobos, both friends and foes, as well as attractive and available women. Hopping freight, being hungry, getting drunk, fighting, and working a carnival are all worth the trouble when it comes down to finding what it is they’re really seeking.

Lynden’s and The Duke’s parallel motives for riding the rails move through the narrative side by side like rail tracks. Similarly, the author’s book is organized with parallel chapters which alternate between dialogue segments and active episodes. Bookended by short essays on the book’s themes, the story is encased in social commentary and evokes a never-ending journey. Quotes at the beginning of each chapter enhance the thoughtful flavor of the text as well as provide a musical spice with lyrics and poetry. The differing writing styles that make up the tale superbly complement one another. The tracks of one are philosophical, covering topics such as regrets, the future, and leaving legacies, while the others are outwardly focused on the landscapes traversed, characters encountered, and schemes executed.

Aside from a stint in the carnival, Lynden and The Duke are on the move almost constantly. Risks from the people they’re either looking for or escaping and the dangers of getting on and off trains create an infectious adrenaline rush. The pace is frantic and forward-moving but, like the railroads, also full of starts and stops. However, the stops are never dull due to in-depth discussions. The stakes are high for the main characters. Not only are their lives on the line, but their cost-benefit analysis of their way of life brings Lynden and The Duke to conclusions that impact both of their futures.

The story’s setting in a seedy, criminal underworld makes the larger questions the book raises just as dangerous and pressing. The past is receding—not just the Knights of the Road, but everything computers replace. The men talk about an increasing wariness of strangers, insurance, and new technologies. The book is nostalgic without romanticizing “the olden days.” Prices and debts associated with the two extremes of “the American Dream” represent—on the one hand, Lynden’s corporate security and, on the other, The Duke’s freedom from mortgages and work—lead them to respect while also pushing one another.

One area in which they learn from each other is about sex. Lynden’s sexual insecurities are addressed in a refreshing and blunt manner. However, women they encounter are treated as little more than tests for their theories. The tone is serious but playful. Their repartee with each other and other hobos involves much teasing and colorful slang. The book doesn’t provide answers. Rather, its main characters’ development toward taking their fate into their own hands and knowing they have each others’ backs shows different ways of life working effectively together. Fans of novels that cajole readers to think on a deeper level may wish to ride the rails with this one.

A 2023 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

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