David Baldacci,
The Christmas Train
(Time Warner, 2002)

Just in time for the holidays, Time Warner has released David Baldacci's most recent work, The Christmas Train. This tale, which covers a multi-day, multi-train ride across the country, lasts approximately seven hours as an audiobook.

The story centers around Tom Langdon, a 40-something journalist who seems to be searching for whatever it is that is missing in his life. During his youth, he reported from war zones and dangerous places from around the globe. He was kidnapped, imprisoned and nearly lost his life on more than one occasion, sharing many of those years with the love of his life, Eleanor Carter -- until she left him with no explanation. Now, many years later, Tom finds himself stateside, writing fluff for magazines and dating the voice behind some of the more popular cartoon characters of the day.

That brings us up to the beginning of The Christmas Train. Tom explains, in a wildly exaggerated and not very believable fashion, why he is no longer allowed to fly public airlines within the continental U.S. Since he is supposed to meet his girlfriend in L.A. for the holidays, he concocts an idea about writing a story on train travel while taking the only mode of transportation available to him -- you certainly didn't expect him to drive, did you?!!?

The first leg of the trip finds Tom aboard the Capital Limited, an overnight run from D.C. to Chicago. Tom meets many quirky characters, but the most startling discovery is that Eleanor is onboard. She is working for legendary Hollywood director Max Powers, who happens to be riding the rails looking for his next script. Max, who always gets his way, convinces the two former lovers to work together again, pooling the knowledge they gather riding coast to coast.

The meat of this story takes place during the second leg of the trip on the Southwest Chief from Chicago to L.A. Not only does Tom's girlfriend show up to surprise him with a marriage proposal, but a thief from aboard the Capital Limited also appears, Tom and Eleanor participate in a wedding of strangers, and the train comes close to meeting its demise thanks to Mother Nature. Interspersed in the plot is a lot of little history lessons about train travel, Amtrak and Mark Twain. This seems like a lot to pack in to seven hours. But is it worth listening to?

The Christmas Train is only a holiday story because of the time setting. With a few minor tweaks to the writing, this trip could easily be taking place in January. Of course, we all know -- thanks to Scrooge -- that complete personality overhauls, or in Tom's case, instant maturity, can only take place during the magic time at the end of the year. Still, a word of warning, don't buy this book if you are simply looking for the next holiday classic. This isn't it.

If you like light plot lines, funny dialogue, bizarre characters and the excellent reading skills of Tim Matheson, then this might be a worthy purchase. I, for one, never figured out who the thief was. I was even more surprised to find out why the thief was stealing. On the other hand, I enjoyed the little tidbits about train travel in the past. Although I did get tired of the plane bashing (there are many untruths told in the story), The Christmas Train piqued my interest in taking a vacation by train some time. (Did Amtrak pay for this seven-hour commercial?) I did see, from thousands of miles away, that Tom and Eleanor would get back together and I chuckled a lot on their journey back into each other's arms, but I think that is more due to the talents of Matheson than Baldacci's writing.

Matheson is perhaps most memorable from the movie Animal House. He has also appeared on such notable shows as The West Wing, The King of Queens and Leave It to Beaver. He has the ability to switch from an Irish Catholic priest to a 63 year-old black woman to a young Southern girl as if he were either channeling them or had multiple personalities. Sometimes, just the accents are enough to bring a smile to your face, regardless of the dialogue. In my opinion, Matheson has taken a mediocre book and made it in to something better than average when it comes to audiobooks.

The author has had books on the New York Times best-selling list seven times! He is the author of Absolute Power, Total Control, The Winner, The Simple Truth, Saving Faith, Last Man Standing and Wish You Well. With The Christmas Train, Baldacci creates a host of characters that are admittedly fun to listen about. However, there are so many of them that you never get to know enough about any single one of them to truly care. Still, for light entertainment, the work is adequate.

I will admit that I did not enjoy the first part of The Christmas Train. Immature Tom Langdon rails (pun intended) against the airlines, which in my mind constitutes kicking someone while they are down. But, thanks to Matheson, I could not help but be drawn in to the story. I enjoyed listening to some of the strangest people I've never had the pleasure of observing. Baldacci does write some witty dialogue, but it is Matheson's flawless delivery that makes this audiobook worth purchasing.

I recommend The Christmas Train in its audiobook format -- at any time of year, not just the holiday season. On the other hand, I do not think I would be writing as favorable a review if I had read it in hardback.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 21 December 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.