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A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year
One of NPR's 10 Best Novels of 2011
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...
A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year
One of NPR's 10 Best Novels of 2011
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.
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
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?
Reading group guide written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop
Posted September 5, 2011
Posted November 8, 2011
Posted June 8, 2012
Posted May 15, 2012
I Also Recommend:
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.
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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.
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Posted April 9, 2014
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Posted July 12, 2013
Barely a book. Started as a short story and apparently Johnson was talked into padding it a bit to qualify it for marketing as a novella, but in every way it's still a short story. Throughout I couldn't get away from the image of him writing with Annie Proulx in one hand and Cormac McCarthy in the other. The prose is generally tough-guy-man-and-nature-sentimentality. It kills part of a day agreeably enough but reads like thousands of other New Yorker-like fiction examples.
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Posted January 22, 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
Posted July 11, 2012