The philosophy behind Train 407 is strong. Many of Mr. Schuster’s observations about life aboard commuter trains are insightful. The things he notices about the relationships formed, the tolerances that naturally occur, and the camaraderie shared are quite interesting. Mr. Schuster has a way of drilling down into the very essence of an idea that makes sense and provides more food for thought. This makes the premise of the novel intriguing.
Unfortunately, because the novel, if it could be called that, is solely Ben’s opinions and observations, one’s liking of the novel depends upon one liking Ben. Therein lays the fundamental flaw behind the entire story. See, Ben is not an enjoyable character. He is opinionated, bigoted, self-righteous, egotistical, and somewhat of a cad. He truly feels that his five years within the country have made him an expert on all things American, including an American’s mindset, but fails to give a reason or proof of his expertise.
This could all be overlooked if Ben’s opinions were not so narrow and disturbing. He is very, almost obsessively, focused on appearance, and everyone he sees is subject to his approval or disapproval based solely on what they are wearing and how they carry themselves. This includes snap judgments on people of color, something about which he is extremely aware, and even going so far as to disapprove of any woman wearing tight clothing during the daytime. He is particularly vocal about anyone who is overweight, and there is a particularly upsetting vignette that involves an overweight man who sits next to him on a train. Ben laughs at how big this man is. Out loud. To make matters worse, he then internalizes how this guy is just lazy and that there is no excuse outside of a medical condition that makes this stranger’s weight acceptable. This entire scene is why it would be awful to read people’s thoughts. Some things are just not meant to be shared.
Another particularly upsetting habit Ben has is of objectifying women. As mentioned earlier, he has strong opinions about appropriate dress and will mentally take women to task for failing to dress professionally. He also spends quite a bit of time fantasizing about certain fellow commuters, calling one a “cougar” and openly flirting with another. He even goes so far as to not only ask her out on a lunch date but also attends more than one lunch date with this woman before having to cool things off with her because their feelings were getting too intense. What is worse is that Ben is a newlywed, although one gets the impression that this relationship status may be temporary by the negative way in which he discusses his wife.
One could expound upon Ben’s negative qualities in even further detail because there are so many of them. His attitudes towards work, his negativity towards anything which does not reconcile with his own sense of propriety, and even the language he uses to interact with his fellow commuters are all vexing. Ben is just that unlikable. It is truly unfortunate because the psychology behind commuting and the compromises one must make to personal space and control is indeed fascinating. In better hands, or if Mr. Schuster had focused solely on those insights, Train 407 would have be an intriguing little book. Instead, he makes Train 407 less about this and more about Ben’s personal soap box, and the novel becomes less a cultural observation and more a disturbing book that gives voice to a very opinionated and unqualified young man.