Train Dreams by Denis Johnson may be the perfect novella. It may even, for me, be the perfect book. It is epic yet small, and contains the multitudes of life within a little over 100 pages. The economy of language on display is paired with a surfeit of emotion, giving this slim book the heft and depth of the biggest door-stopper. Suffice to say that it is my book of the year and I doubt I’ll read anything better in the coming weeks.
Train Dreams is concerned with the life of Robert Grainier, a life that is marked by loss. Robert is an orphan, shipped by train in 1893 to Idaho to be taken in by a family who never tell him where he has come from. He grows up and makes his living as an itinerant labourer, building bridges and felling trees for the rapidly expanding railways of the early 20th century. He finds happiness with a wife and baby daughter, but a pernicious wildfire changes the course of his quiet life forever.
From the ashes of that fire, Johnson creates a tender and elegiac portrait of a lonely man. Moving back and forward through time, we see Robert live a simple life in vastly changing times – with trains always in his background.
Grainier had also once seen a wonder horse, and a wolf-boy, and he’d flown in a bi-plane in 1927. He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing around a train with Elvis Presley in it.
He occasionally encounters other people – all beautifully rendered with a economy that is as startling as it is vivid – but this is a man who cannot recover from what he has lost. Robert lives, but just barely, and he dreams, never giving up hope that he might one day see his daughter again.
Part of what makes Train Dreams so compelling is the atmosphere. This is historical fiction with the lightest of touches. Johnson’s evocation of Idaho in the early twentieth century is persuasive, as the coming modernity sits side by side with folk traditions and superstitions. There is a lurking sense of the grotesque in the depiction of other characters, which introduces some welcome comic interludes. Grainier witnesses strange deaths and ghostly apparitions, but Johnson does not give these happenings precedence over anything else that happens. For Johnson, all of this is life, and Robert’s story is played out with a compelling, quiet intensity.
The theme of the ephemeral nature of life is wonderfully juxtaposed with what Robert does for a living, creating structures meant to stand the test of time and serve as a metaphor for America’s future. The grandeur of nature and man’s small place within it is also wonderfully evoked and some of Johnson’s best writing in the book is that which describes Robert’s surroundings.
He was standing on a cliff. He’d found a back way into a kind of arena enclosing a body of water called Spruce Lake . . . its flat surface as still and black as obsidian, engulfed in the shadow of the surrounding cliffs, ringed with a double ring of evergreens and reflected evergreens. Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds.
The ending of Train Dreams is so surreal that it is almost a surprise that Johnson has taken the narrative where he has, yet it is utterly convincing. As Robert finally realises what he has lost, the novel asks the most profound questions of human life – what is the price of civilisation and what does it mean for human relationships? As the rational world collapses for Robert, the narrative penetrates all the joy and grief inherent in the act of being alive.
Ultimately though, what gives Train Dreams its undeniable power is its brevity. The book is 116 pages long. It can be read in little over an hour. If you get the chance to read it, that will be a magical hour spent in the presence of a simple, haunted life whose echoes will whistle through your thoughts like the trains that whistle through Robert Grainier’s dreams.
The forests that filled his life were so thickly populous and so tall that generally they blocked him from seeing how far away the world was, but right now it seemed clear there were mountains enough for everyone to get his own
Train Dreams is a book of daunting beauty. It is profound, wise, humane and unforgettable.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!