Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

This is a quiet little book, a novella really. It was first published in the Paris Review in 2002. It is the story of a life, the life of Robert Grainier—who lives alone except for a brief marriage, who represents, in the variety of his adventures, the history of westward expansion at the start of the 20th century, and whose end symbolizes the end of an era.

His was an era of logging and lonely train whistles, of latent violence and quiet emotion, of bachelors in a womanless society, of sudden, unexplained death, plus howling animals in the night, of open landscapes, empty forests, and lonely cabins. It is a time of small, unimportant events beautifully told, of a daily existence that seems to lead nowhere and yet expresses a way of living.

Grainier’s life is not told chronologically. For example, his wife Gladys appears early, then we backtrack to their early courtship. He loses wife and daughter in a forest fire, endures the empty world without them, and then he imagines the return of both in a moment of magic realism. The only one of these moments that carries any drama is the forest fire, which also reverberates in later scenes. The remaining events are simply told. There are no stylistic flourishes, no deep introspection, only flat, realistic detail.

One is not impressed by this work while reading it. Indeed, one wonders at its purpose. One also wonders where it is going, and why it has received so many hosannas. Even the ending brings no dramatic fulfillment. Only when one sits back and thinks about what one has read, does this book come together. Does one see its perfection. Does one understand the completeness of this life. Does one realize how the small events have created the whole.

There are no false steps. Even though there is no linkage, no direct continuity as one scene flows into the next, as one chapter follows the next, the portrait of this one man is complete when we arrive at the matter-of-fact ending. And as one realizes that one has read the complete story of one ordinary life, one also realizes that it is a life that contains much of the history of the West. It is a simple tale, but it is also profound. Its reach extends far beyond its individual scenes.

For one does grasp that the ending of this life represents the ending of an era. The railroads have been built, the forests have been removed, more women have arrived, automobiles are replacing horses, planes are in the air, prosperity approaches, and men have lost their desperation. Each of the novella’s nine chapters hightlights an event in Grainier’s life. A Chinese railroader flees his execution. There is the fate of Arn Peeples, who sets off dynamite charges, and of the wounded William Haley leaning against a tree, and whom Grainier is too young to know how to help. There is Grainier’s ruined world after the forest fire, and then his realization that he is older and can no longer log trees, so he turns to trucking and to hauling trees. There is his belief in an imaginary wolf-girl, and the return of Gladys, in his mind, followed by the return of his daughter Kate. But few of these moments of drama are told in a dramatic way—as if Johnson does not want us to concentrate on these moments but on the entire story, not on the story of this man’s life, but on what it represents.

Anthony Doerr sums up this short work: “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.”

This is a perfect, little introduction to the work of Denis Johnson. And in its brevity lies is perfection. It is not typical, however, for he often writes at a longer length. But its perfection makes it worthy of study by novice writers. Here is how to create universality through the commonplace. How to find meaning in the incidental. How to build emotion through unexpected moments.

I am interested in reading more works by this author, but I confess that this novella does not draw me to his more expansive fiction. (April, 2014)

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