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Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in ...
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime.
Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West—its otherworldly flora and fauna, its rugged loggers and bridge builders—the new novella by the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.
Praise for Tree of Smoke:
“Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book . . . It ought to secure Johnson's status as a revelator for this still new century.” —Jim Lewis, The New York Times
Praise for Train Dreams:
“[A] severely lovely tale . . . The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured. I started reading ‘Train Dreams’ with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story’s unaffected tact and honesty . . . Any writer can use simple prose to describe the raising of a cabin or the cutting down of tress, but only very good writers can use that prose to build a sense of an entire community, and to convey, without condescension, that this community shares some of the simplicity of the prose. Chekhov could do this, Naipaul does it in his early work about Trinidad, and Johnson does it here, often using an unobtrusive, free indirect style to inhabit the limited horizons of his characters . . . A way of being, a whole community, has now disappeared from view, and is given brief and eloquent expression here.” —James Wood, The New Yorker
“National Book Award winner Johnson (Tree of Smoke) has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer . . . The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers . . . Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred)
“National Book Award-winner Johnson, ever the literary shape-shifter, looks back to America’s expansionist fever dream in a haunting frontier ballad about a loner named Robert Granier . . . Johnson draws on history and tall tales to adroitly infuse one contemplative man’s solitary life with the boundless mysteries of nature and the havoc of humankind’s breakneck technological insurgency, creating a concentrated, reverberating tale of ravishing solemnity and molten lyricism.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume . . . but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson’s epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus’ Son . . . An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)
“Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is like a long out-of-print B-side, a hard-to-find celebrated work treasured by those in the know that’s finally become available to the rest of us . . . . Train Dreams is a peculiarly gripping book. It palpably conjures the beauty of an American West then still very much a place of natural wonder and menace, and places one man’s lonely life in that landscape, where he’s at once comfortably at home and utterly lost.” —Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Johnson is one of our finest writers. His characters are usually not the high and mighty but the down-and-out, sometimes marginalized individuals who struggle to communicate their deeper longings or their encounters with the transcendent. A poet, he infuses his narratives with images that sparkle and even jolt but never overwhelm the reader . . . Johnson has the unique ability to draw us into a story and a character until we encounter our own questions about mortality and meaning . . . when we leave this man and this book, we feel the loss, which reverberates in our own souls. We recognize in Grainier's dreams of trains our own fears and longings. Johnson in his poignant prose helps us feel such things.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Train Dreams is a gorgeous, rich book about the classic American myth, but written for a country that’s lost faith in its own mythology . . . Train Dreams, luscious with grief, regret, and lowered expectations, is a lesson in end-of-the-frontier humility for a country anticipating apocalypse.” —K. Reed Perry, Electric Literature
“Johnson captures the feeling of the woods and the small towns built around mining, logging and the new railroads. Indians and Chinese laborers also play significant roles . . . The writing is spare and frequently beautiful; Johnson’s backwoods dialogue and tall tales are often hilarious; and he graces us with such wonderful words as ‘pulchritude’ and ‘confabulation’—it’s a shame we don’t hear them much anymore.” —Stephen K. Tollefson, San Francisco Chronicle
“This musical little novella, originally published in 2003 in the Paris Review, is set mostly in the 1920s, and in the logging camps and train-station towns of Idaho and of the Pacific Northwest. It is wholly Johnson's own.
His hero, Robert Grainier, a sometimes logger and sometimes hauler, is as dislocated as any wandering druggy from an earlier Johnson book. And in these logging camps and train towns, Johnson has found a territory as strange and unpredictable as any dystopic landscape of his imagination. In a way, Train Dreams puts me in mind of a late Bob Dylan album: with the wildness and psychedelia of youth burned out of him, Johnson's eccentricity is revealed as pure Americana.” —Gabriel Brownstein, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“A meditative, often magical book . . . Deceptively simple language and arresting details make this a book to read slowly . . . Johnson’s portrait of a man who stands still as life marches on is itself something timeless.” —Kate Tuttle, Boston.com
“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 . . . 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 . . . [Train Dreams has] a delicacy of language and a mythic simplicity of storytelling that would slip the grasp of many writers.” —Stefan Beck, The Barnes and Noble Review
“[Train Dreams] is a triumph of spare writing that sketches the life of [Robert] Grainier, a logger and hauler born in 1886, and who dies, in a different world, in 1968 . . . in a blend of myth and history, Johnson builds a world around Grainier . . . Johnson, a poet, playwright and novelist, won the National Book Award in 2007 for his sprawling Vietnam War novel, Tree of Smoke. But he goes short as well as he goes long. Train Dreams . . . is a gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told.” —Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“Johnson’s new novella may be his most pared-down work of fiction yet, but make no mistake—it packs a wallop . . . Train Dreams is a small book of weighty ideas. It renders the story of America and our westward course of empire in the most beautiful and heartbreaking manner imaginable . . . Train Dreams explores what was lost in the process of American growth. Much to his credit, Johnson doesn’t simply posit industry and nature against each other, or science and religion, or even human and animal, but instead looks at how their interactions can transform both. And [Robert] Grainier is there through all of this examination, over the course of his long and sad life, to serve as our witness and maybe even our conscience.” —Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald
“I first read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery . . . Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I’d page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson’s evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive . . . 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 . . . it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written.” —Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review
“Johnson beautifully conveys what he calls ‘the steadying loneliness’ of most of Grainier's life, the ordinary adventures of a simple man whose people are, we hear, ‘the hard people of the northwestern mountains,’ and toward the end even convinces us of his character's inquisitive and perhaps even deeper nature than we might first have imagined. Grainier ‘lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s,’ we learn. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will find him living on.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Train Dreams is a portrait of containment, of compression and restraint . . . On the one hand, what Johnson is evoking is the sweep of time, of history, as seen through an archetypal life. Grainer is an ideal filter for such an effort: born in one century, living mostly in another, he becomes a three-dimensional metaphor for the industrialization of the country, the slow passage from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul. And yet, as he generally does, Johnson has something more elusive in mind also, something more fundamental and intense . . . Here, Johnson gets at the key issue of his writing: the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can't decipher what it means . . . As for what this says about the country Grainer represents, perhaps it's that we are bound, at the deepest level, by something elemental, something that eludes reason, or even language but tells a story just the same. Such a story exists between terror and transcendence, between the wild and the tame.” —David. L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“Train Dreams is an eloquently scattershot biography of a fictional labourer who lived much of his life in the woods, alone. It's a compressed epic about wolf-children, ghosts, wilderness, fearsome weather and the lingering threads that kept man tied to animal in the western parts of our continent—a connection lost to the past century . . . [It] is as magnificent, spellbinding and intermittently awkward as anything Denis Johnson has ever done . . . Johnson, with his affinity for poetically deformed vernacular, vividly evokes the satisfactions and tolls of work: men living in tents left over from the Civil War, long days, foul smells that cling to the body, shoulders that lock up and joints that won't hold, accidental deaths—and not-so-accidental deaths . . . Johnson imbues the handful of remarkable experiences Grainier did have with reverence: a first kiss, a brush with racist violence that nearly made Grainier an accomplice to murder, the time a man from Alberta took Grainier up in a plane and prompted a spilling forth of forgotten childhood sensations. None of this feels inflated or forced. For the short while it takes to read Train Dreams we are held in its grip, pulled by our shirt-fronts. This book is a small, glinting, oddly shaped treasure.” —José Teodoro, Edmonton Journal
“While in [Johnson’s] writerly company you cannot help but believe that the world is a function of his apprehension of it, and it is this quality that lends his matchless prose its sense of having been less written than received, an effortless and profound transmission, radio waves unscrolling in the black sea between the prairie and the star map—all that heady bullshit, but ringing true . . . Train Dreams is also very funny. Quirky, colorful, off-beat characters intrude on Grainier’s solitude at regular intervals, each one a babbling fool. There are roughnecks and Indians and a man dying in the woods of knife wounds to the backs of his knees. When a risqué film screens in town Grainier is nearly done in with lust by the word “pulchritude” on a promotional poster. A man reports himself shot by his own dog . . . Padgett Powell once wrote that Johnson ‘takes loss through some kind of sound barrier, past which celebrations of joy in destitution appear. For clean line, for deftness, for hard honest comedy there is no better than Denis Johnson.’ That seems exactly right to me.” —Justin Taylor, The Faster Times
“Grainier’s story is the story of an ordinary man told in an extraordinary way in extraordinarily spare yet magical prose . . . some of Johnson’s best writing is on display here. It is a book of wonders both real and imagined, of great locomotives that traversed the continent and sawmills that conquered the big woods, of a curse by a persecuted ‘Chinaman’ that (perhaps) brings destruction on Grainier’s wife and daughter and their little cabin in the woods, a great fire Grainier would remember his entire life, like something Biblical in modern times. As with Johnson’s best work, the prose and the story itself start out in a realistic way, plain and serious but with a little smirk, and then take us someplace else: the plainness becomes poetic; the seriousness becomes hallucinatory, as if to say that we should take serious things seriously, but that it is also more complicated than merely taking them seriously; and the smirk—the smirk of a saint who finally has achieved religious ecstasy and who smirks because he knows he was right all along . . . The world he creates is the real world but always teetering on hallucination, on myth, on turning into something other than its plain, concrete, realistic surface. It is the world on the verge of spiritual transcendence and illumination, and it is the world on the verge of nothingness. It is the world we know and don’t know, and it seems always about to vanish before our eyes . . . Train Dreams is an important little book, and Denis Johnson is an important, big writer, and I hate to think of a time when he and a few others like him will not be there to protect us from our modern desire to flee the human world into something less human, less scary, less alive—and less permanent.” —Anthony Wallace, The Arts Fuse
“At his worst, man is haunted by the past—the past reappearing in our dreams as a constant reminder of mistakes, of loved ones lost and of the indelible mark left on our memory by the sometimes violent imagery of life. Denis Johnson . . . portrays these sentiments in Train Dreams, a perfectly understated novella that tells the story of everyman Robert Grainier . . . Grainier is a man ultimately measured by movement: “He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.” Like the distant rumble of the locomotive in the still of night, memory acts as both a comfort and a disquieting reminder of the linear trajectory leading toward and away from him.” —Lucas Sarcona, News Review
“Denis Johnson’s novel . . . is like a crystal: hard, gem-like, and intricately structured . . . Johnson’s prose is simple yet lyrical, and its clear beauty often reflects the things it describes . . . Even more striking are the descriptions of Grainier’s almost elemental lonesomeness.” —Anthony Domestico, Commonweal
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."
Train Dreams, a novella first published in The Paris Review in 2002, was 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 daises 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.
A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainier, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit's bare feet. The man facing him, Mr. Sears, of Spokane International's management, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: "Boys, I'm damned if we ever see the top of this heap!" Then we're hauling him all the way? was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.
They came abreast of the others, a gang of a dozen men pausing in the sun to lean on their tools and wipe at sweat and watch this thing. Grainier held on convulsively to the Chinaman's horny foot, wondering at himself, and the man with the other foot let loose and sat down gasping in the dirt and got himself kicked in the eye before Grainier took charge of the free-flailing limb. "It was just for fun. For fun," the man sitting in the dirt said, and to his confederate there he said, "Come on, Jel Toomis, let's give it up." "I can't let loose," this Mr. Toomis said, "I'm the one's got him by the neck!" and laughed with a gust of confusion passing across his features. "Well, I've got him!" Grainier said, catching both the little demon's feet tighter in his embrace. "I've got the bastard, and I'm your man!"
The party of executioners got to the midst of the last completed span, sixty feet above the rapids, and made every effort to toss the Chinaman over. But he bested them by clinging to their arms and legs, weeping his gibberish, until suddenly he let go and grabbed the beam beneath him with one hand. He kicked free of his captors easily, as they were trying to shed themselves of him anyway, and went over the side, dangling over the gorge and making hand-over-hand out over the river on the skeleton form of the next span. Mr. Toomis's companion rushed over now, balancing on a beam, kicking at the fellow's fingers. The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while others, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped. Mr. Sears removed from the holster on his belt a large old four-shot black-powder revolver and took his four, to no effect. By then the Chinaman had vanished.
Hiking to his home after this incident, Grainier detoured two miles to the store at the railroad village of Meadow Creek to get a bottle of Hood's Sarsaparilla for his wife, Gladys, and their infant daughter, Kate. It was hot going up the hill through the woods toward the cabin, and before getting the last mile he stopped and bathed in the river, the Moyea, at a deep place upstream from the village.
It was Saturday night, and in preparation for the evening a number of the railroad gang from Meadow Creek were gathered at the hole, bathing with their clothes on and sitting themselves out on the rocks to dry before the last of the daylight left the canyon. The men left their shoes and boots aside and waded in slowly up to their shoulders, whooping and splashing. Many of the men already sipped whiskey from flasks as they sat shivering after their ablutions. Here and there an arm and hand clutching a shabby hat jutted from the surface while somebody got his head wet. Grainier recognized nobody and stayed off by himself and kept a close eye on his boots and his bottle of sarsaparilla.
Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.
He gave the Hood's to Gladys. She sat up in bed by the stove, nursing the baby at her breast, down with a case of the salt rheum. She could easily have braved it and done her washing and cut up potatoes and trout for supper, but it was their custom to let her lie up with a bottle or two of the sweet-tasting Hood's tonic when her head ached and her nose stopped, and get a holiday from such chores. Grainier's baby daughter, too, looked rheumy. Her eyes were a bit crusted and the discharge bubbled pendulously at her nostrils while she suckled and snorted at her mother's breast. Kate was four months old, still entirely bald. She did not seem to recognize him. Her little illness wouldn't hurt her as long as she didn't develop a cough out of it.
Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they'd gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he'd cursed them.
He sat on the edge of the bed.
"Thank you, Bob," his wife said.
"Do you like your sarsaparilla?"
"I do. Yes, Bob."
"Do you suppose little Kate can taste it out your teat?"
"Of course she can."
Many nights they heard the northbound Spokane International train as it passed through Meadow Creek, two miles down the valley. Tonight the distant whistle woke him, and he found himself alone in the straw bed.
Gladys was up with Kate, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.
"How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog-pup, do you suppose?"
"A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away," Gladys said.
He waited for her to explain what this meant. She often thought ahead of him.
"A man-child couldn't do that way," she said, "just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too—as many as a baby."
"How many words, Gladys?"
"You know," she said, "the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do."
"Just say some of the words, Glad." It was dark and he wanted to keep hearing her voice.
"Well, fetch, and come, and sit, and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words."
In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.
Copyright © 2002 by Denis Johnson
Throughout his award-winning career, Denis Johnson has brought us an endlessly fascinating cast of characters: sinners, saviors, and desperate souls caught in between. In Train Dreams, he presents a provocative portrait of a man who comes to know both excruciating hardship and quiet wonder in the American West in the first half of the twentieth century. A day laborer, Robert Grainier is on the front line in the modernization of the frontier, opening a rugged landscape to railway service, shoulder to shoulder with teams of countless men like him. Their world is divided between those who survive against astounding odds and those who succumb. Grainier is a survivor in all senses of the word: when he loses his young family, he returns to his solitary ways and struggles to make sense of the tragedy, even as he continues to feel the spiritual presence of his wife and daughter.
An epic in miniature, Train Dreams captures a singular chapter in the American story, set in an otherworldly landscape that has the potential to haunt anyone who attempts to subdue it. As we witness history alongside Grainier, we are forced to weigh the human toll against the awe-inspiring arrival of “civilization” as ordinary men eke out a living in extraordinary times. The result is a poignant, illuminating novella from one of the greatest storytellers of his generation.
This guide is designed to enhance your discussion of Train Dreams. We hope that the following questions and topics will enrich your reading of this finely honed tribute to the human experience.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What did the incident with the Chinese laborer show us about Robert Grainier and his beliefs regarding human suffering?
2. What made Grainier and Gladys’s marriage special? How was he transformed by his role as a husband and father?
3. What does the novella tell us about the nature of survivors such as Arn Peeples (chapter two) versus those who perish? How do the characters understand death?
4. In chapter three, how was the young Grainier affected by his encounter with half-dead William Haley and the tragic tale of Haley’s niece?
5. What aspects of life in the West stayed the same as Grainier matured and grew old? What aspects of his life were lost to modernization?
6. For Grainier, is solitude a form of solace and peace, or is loneliness painful for him? Is his solitary life appealing to you?
7. What does Kate’s story tell us about Grainier’s capacity for love? Is his community cruel or just naive?
8. In the third chapter, we’re told that Grainier never knew his parents and wasn’t even sure if he had been born in the United States or in Canada. In the absence of a mother and a father, who and what shaped his identity?
9. How does the novella’s spectacular scenery become a character itself? How do the settlers balance the brutality of nature, captured in the horrific wildfire, with their desire to live on a frontier?
10. What does the demise of Kootenai Bob in chapter four say about the relationship between his people and the settlers? What determines who the outsiders are in Grainier’s world?
11. Revisit the story of Peterson, who was shot by his own dog (chapter five). How do humans and animals get along in Train Dreams? What aspects of the animal world, and the spirit world, terrify the settlers the most?
12. Discuss the title. What are the dreamlike qualities of this novella? As Grainier expands the nation’s rail system through his death-defying work, is he transported or trapped?
13. The novella contains many powerful scenes of backbreaking manual labor through which human beings “triumph” over nature. What circumstances drew them to this life? Under what circumstances would you be satisfied with so few creature comforts?
14. Discuss the novella’s closing image. What did the wolf-boy reveal to a crowd of townspeople (including Grainier) who thought they had seen it all?
15. Much of Denis Johnson’s other fiction deals with destructive wars within the self, especially in Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. Does Train Dreams underscore this view of humanity, or is it a departure from Johnson’s previous work?
Praise for TRAIN DREAMS
“Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a sweeping tall tale, an homage to Bret Harte, a work of North American magical realism, a yarn of the supernatural variety, and finally the biography of a widower and hermit, Robert Grainier, who weeps in church, fears his dreams, and dies in 1968 without having used a telephone . . . Attentiveness to detail gives this story credence, but its greater power lies in its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy. I admire this story for its celebratory quality, its skillful blending of forms and traditions, its consistently exquisite use of the English language, and in the end for its emotional appeal.” —David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars
About the Author
Denis Johnson is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke was the 2007 winner of the National Book Award. Train Dreams won the PEN/O. Henry Prize as well as The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize.
Reading group guide written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop
Posted September 5, 2011
Posted November 8, 2011
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Posted May 15, 2012
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A quiet story of lonesome struggle. The descriptions of time and place were exceptional.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 21, 2012
I'm impressed by the eloquence of this simple chronicle of a simple life. But readers should be aware that they're paying for aabout 65 pages of narrative. -- catwak
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Posted October 4, 2011
Ordered the print shown on the dust jacket of this book, probably the best part of the book. My first experience reading Denis Johnson and strange is about all I can say about the story, and even though the names of the towns are well known to me, I could have gone without this fictional downer.
2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 2, 2013
This novella is a great read and also a great introduction to the writing of Denis Johnson, if you haven't read anything of his yet. This is the story of one man whose life spans a time when the country experienced incredible change. It is also a haunting story, delivering an ongoing account of an individual's thoughts as his life progresses. He was not a famous or remarkable person, but this is a remarkable story in so few pages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 19, 2013
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Posted August 10, 2012
Novella enthusiasts, look no further -- here is your magnum opus, the holy grail of all short novel craft and skill.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 13, 2012
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