Is Denis Johnson real? Given the barest facts about his career, one might suppose he’d been invented by a focus group of teenage aspirant bohemians. One of his poetry anthologies is called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (1992), after the Ghent Altarpiece of outsider art. His debut novel, Angels (1983), is about addicts, pimps, repo men, bank robbers, religious nuts, and a psychologically shattered rape victim; post-”Howl,” the title is less arresting than obligatory. Jesus’ Son (1992), a book of stories named for a Velvet Underground lyric, has yet more junkies, thieves, and marginal creeps. The National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke (2007), a massive novel about the Vietnam War, is the sort of thing for which critics reserve the word “phantasmagoric.”
Johnson’s plots can sound a bit like the product of a committee or checklist, too. Here is Library Journal on Johnson’s 2000 novel, The Name of the World: “This lean but vivid and affecting novel drops us into the world of Michael Reed, who has managed to cocoon himself in a stable but inert life as a university professor after his wife and child are killed in an auto accident. Four years later…Reed knows he needs to finish mourning and move on but can’t quite figure out how. A sort of salvation comes in the form of Flower Cannon, a free-spirited student who serendipitously reappears in his path.”
Johnson’s latest is Train Dreams, a novella first published in The Paris Review in 2002, given the magazine’s Aga Khan Prize for that year, and awarded the PEN/O. Henry Prize in 2003. We might describe it Mad Libs-style: “This lean but vivid and affecting novel drops us into the world of [railroad worker Robert Grainier], who has managed to cocoon himself in a stable but inert life as a [mountain man] after his [wife and child] are [lost and presumed dead] in a [forest fire]. [One year] later . . . [Grainier] knows he needs to finish mourning and move on but can’t quite figure out how.” For the free-spirited student, substitute a Kootenai Indian named Bob, a feral child, or the fledgling miracle of flight, which Grainier experiences at a county fair. Each of these offers the man, a laborer in the early-twentieth-century West, what is referred to in critic-speak as “a shot at redemption.”
The story isn’t really so pat. We are introduced to Grainier in 1917, as he participates in the halfhearted and unsuccessful execution of a Chinese worker “caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.” We see Grainier build and repair railroad bridges, and work as a choke setter, a logger who fastens timber for removal by horses (or, in our day, helicopters). We flash back to his courtship (“almost always at the Methodist Sunday services”) of a girl named Gladys Olding. Later, in 1920, a fire reduces the Moyea Valley, and Grainier’s young family, to a dark memory. What follows—the tortuous path of Grainier’s grief, and his experience of a changing world—is best left for the reader to discover.
What’s clear is that Denis Johnson is real, and that he is hardly the hopped-up, wide-eyed dime store mystic that a jaded reader might expect him to be. Johnson’s aptitude for storytelling puts him in league with crime writers like James Crumley and Charles Willeford. His humor, especially in Jesus’ Son, recalls Tom McGuane and even the great Charles Portis more frequently than it does what we think of as “stoner comedy.” Johnson, asked about the “relationship between writing and drugs,” said, “I think it’s a miracle I was able to become a writer at all after everything I took when I was younger. I think what I’m saying is, don’t do drugs if you’re really serious about becoming a writer.” Hard words from a man with cult status.
And Johnson takes literary risks. He’s followed his creativity down some chancy alleys—see, e.g., his postapocalyptic novel Fiskadoro (1985). It’s a pretty difficult read, but if Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning The Road (2006) could get any more ashen, it would pale by comparison. Tree of Smoke was put to nearly 3,000 words of rattan-cane torture by B. R. Myers, who made some crippling points, but years on, it’s hard to remember what Myers wrote, and easy to remember Johnson’s book. Take the time to peruse Johnson’s corpus, and the inescapable conclusion is that its recurring elements are passions, revisited thoughtfully, not out of complacency or lack of imagination.
Train Dreams drives this spike home in two ways. The first is that its time period marked a major departure for Johnson, one presumably demanding a staggering deal of research. The second is that its tone, more subdued than Johnson’s usual, had to have presented a challenge. He manages to avoid two of the snares that await writers of historical fiction—on the one hand, anachronism, which one finds even in Doctorow and Morrison, and, on the other hand, an anxious dependency on archaic words and cherry-picked, jarring period detail. Maybe it helped matters that Johnson is a poet. His language keeps frontier passion in the yoke of plausible old-time discretion.
When the sun got too hot, they moved under a lone jack pine in the pasture of jeremy grass, he with his back against the bark and she with her cheek on his shoulder. The white daisies dabbed the field so profusely that it seemed to foam. He wanted to ask for her hand now. He was afraid to ask. She must want him to ask, or surely she wouldn’t lie there with him, breathing against his arm, his face against her hair—her hair faintly fragrant of sweat and soap… “Would you care to be my wife, Gladys?” he astonished himself by saying.
It says something that the flora are mentioned so carelessly, so naturally. In how many bad books would a dozen specimens of plant life be dutifully listed, so that the reader all but sees the author with his thumb in the reference text? And how about those foaming daisies? And Grainier’s astonishment at his own rather gentle presumption? Johnson has shown a man’s desire using subtle gestures, without reaching for a telegraphic display of sexual bravado or incontinence. He doesn’t need it. So it’s safe to say that when he did give his readers a sexual nightmare, two decades earlier (Angels), he wasn’t angling for shock value.
He overreaches, as so many writers do, in the arena of religious feeling. Here is Grainier surveying the scene of the wildfire that claimed his family—”this feasting fire,” in Johnson’s gruesome and lapidary phrase. “He saw no sign of their Bible, either. If the Lord had failed to protect even the book of his own Word, this proved to Grainier that here had come a fire stronger than God.” No, it didn’t. This is the kind of thing that will ring a reader’s bell if his whole sense of Old Time Religion comes from reading Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. The average man, even if he is a hillbilly simpleton—and even if he happens to be a hillbilly simpleton in a phantasmagoric parable—will not be surprised to learn that Bibles are flammable. To pretend otherwise is to require double duty of faith, to ask first that it be the thing itself and then that it stand in for whatever grim, world-rattling effect the author wishes to produce.
Train Dreams isn’t lacking in those sorts of effects, but it earns them, with a delicacy of language and a mythic simplicity of storytelling that would slip the grasp of many writers. Like McCarthy’s The Road, Train Dreams is the tragedy of a man cut adrift in a world distorted beyond recognition: “By now it no longer disturbed him to understand that the valley wouldn’t slowly, eventually resume its condition from before the great fire.” Robert Grainier’s world of trains and trees has passed away, and the greatest fire of all turns out to be the bewildering progress of time, the obsolescence of everything one loves. It’s not an easy phenomenon to capture. Just ask Cormac McCarthy.