Train Dreams

Train Dreams

by Denis Johnson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250007650
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 112,166
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Denis Johnson (1949-2017) is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.

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Train Dreams

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

Reading Group Guide

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.

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

Customer Reviews

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Train Dreams 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 54 reviews.
JenLubinski More than 1 year ago
This is a book for readers who appreciate craft. Beautifully conceived and written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novella is beautifully written, highly original, and magically affecting.
Superwriter More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
mikedraper on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Robert Grainier is a type of Everyman. His story begins in 1917 and through his eyes we observe many of the events of his life and the underside of history. Through this, the reader can experience what certain events were like in the early to mid twentiety century.Grainier is there when the Spokane International Railway was building its lines. They employeed many Chinese people and Grainier assists a number of men when they decide to throw a Chinaman off a bridge. The man's offense, stealing from the company store.The man escapes by jumping into the water below and while Grainier is walking home, he seems to see the Chinaman everywhere. In one place "...dancing up and out of the creek like a spider."We see flashbacks of Grainier's earlier life and at one point we see the scene when an injured man by the side of a road, asks him to give him some water and when he dies, to tell the sheriff the name of the person who injured him and left him to die.As in many books dealing with the development of areas of the country, he describes tragedies that go along with successes. One day Grainier was coming home after being away to earn money. A fire was consuming the entire area, causing people to flee in every direction. What happens to his family has a profound effect on the rest of his life.This novells was an enjoyable read and gave me pause to consider the hardships that others endured to get us where we are today.
1morechapter on LibraryThing 8 months ago
¿Frost had built on the dead grass, and it skirled beneath his feet. If not for this sound he¿d have thought himself struck deaf, owing to the magnitude of the surrounding silence. All the night¿s noises had stopped. The whole valley seemed to reflect his shock. He heard only his footsteps and the wolf-girl¿s panting complaint.¿I really wanted to read Train Dreams after it was embroiled in the ¿no Pulitzer¿ debate. Hey, it was only 117 pages, so I knew it wouldn¿t take me long to read. It¿s easily read in under two hours. As I write this, I¿m still trying to decide between a 3.5 and a 4.5 star rating. I either loved it, or it was under my 4 star par. I guess I¿ll just have to average the two and give it a 4.Why am I waffling? Part of me loved the story, the writing, and the story of the life of Robert Grainier. Johnson definitely packs a big punch in such a small book. I admired how the author gave such a wide sweep of history of the American West and an individual¿s life in so few pages. What I didn¿t like was the mystical aspects of the book regarding the wolves. It was a little weird.All in all, I would have been neutral on this title winning the Pulitzer. I¿ve certainly read winners that I thought were much worse than this book. I¿m definitely glad I read it, if anything to ponder why the Pulitzer Board chose not to pick this one.
EdGoldberg on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Trains typically go directly from one place to another. And while they may pass through some nice countrysides, it is more often than not, a direct route. Unlike trains, Train Dreams, the Pulitzer Price fiction nominee by Denis Johnson, takes a meandering route to get from its begimning to its end.Train Dreams charts the life of Robert Grainier beginning in 1917 when he, along with several other railway workers, almost throws a Chinese laborer off an in-process railroad tressle. It travels forward to a fire that guts the town he resides in, destroying his cabin in the woods. His wife, Gladys, and daughter, Kate, are not seen again. It reverses course and describes his childhood living with his aunt, uncle and cousins, having lost his parents at an early age. It then forges ahead to his later, solitary years.Train Dreams resembles more a meandering river than the fast moving steel wheels for which Robert worked for a time. This spare novelette, a mere 115 pages, is interesting and literary. You can picture Robert reminiscing, at the end of his long life, about random events. Even though the novel doesn't mention this, you can picture him sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair letting his mind wander, letting thoughts in no particular order enter and exit his memories. In some ways, Train Dreams is quite satisfying in its brevity. In other ways, readers might want more. Which reader will you be?
tangledthread on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A beautiful and sparely written story of a man's life located in the northwestern US during the early 20th century. Through the life of Robert Grenier we see how lives are torn apart by natural and man made disasters. And we see both the resilience and the meanness of the human spirit. To say anything more would be a spoiler.
eenerd on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Slice out a few hours to read this little gem, because you cannot put it down. Beautiful storytelling of a gripping, tragic, and rich life in the area of Washington-Idaho-Montana at the turn of the century. Stunning and wonderful.
sleahey on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A somewhat melancholy novella about a man who is rootless all his life, except for the brief time he shared with his wife and infant daughter until they disappeared in a wildfire during his absence. Never really knowing who his parents were, and never really making connections with others, his life revolved around physical work and survival in the woods of the Idaho panhandle. Wolves, dogs, and coyotes were part of his life, and a focal event in the book is the visitation by a wild wolf-child, his daughter, 10 years after her disappearance. Spare and surreal.
JimElkins on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a very short novel in the mold of one of Annie Proulx's short stories, or of Cormac McCarthy. The is idea is to show us a life so stark, so unpredictably violent, so nearly wordless, so steeped and vinegared in the old oak of some mythic North America, that it seems at once timeless and present. McCarthy, Proulx, and authors like Johnson hope to telescope time, so that the nearly starving, perpetually filthy, illiterate descendants of the first Europeans who tromped across America are somehow still here, still about in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, leading hardscrabble lives of quiet desperation and noble simplicity. This kind of writing is hopelessly naïve about what politics is and what history was, and it is blinkered about present-day North America. The style Johnson is emulating is meant to be stark and spare and harsh and bloody and real and honest and scraped clean of the academic mess that international modernism and postmodernism have slobbered onto it: but that's a fiction too. I wonder if in fifty years writing like this will finally appear for what it is: a last desperate bid to think back into a state outside of history and culture by cranking up the voltage, by writing more directly and cruelly and romantically and dreamily than even the imaginary original drovers and cattlemen and rustlers and hermits ever imagined.
GCPLreader on LibraryThing 8 months ago
So good that just a few hours after finishing this jewel, I went back and read it again. Denis Johnson, National Book Award Winner for Tree of Smoke, has written a tender, sparse novella of the life of Robert Grainier, a common laborer in the Northwestern US in the early 20th C.. Granier is a quiet man who lives, loves, works, and grieves and tries not to be too overwhelmed by the remarkable changing world. Just enough-- just perfect!
Hagelstein on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This novella, originally published in the Paris Review in 2002, tells the story of Robert Grainier, an orphan born in either Utah or Canada ¿ he¿s not sure which ¿ around 1886. Grainier lives most of his eighty years on a single acre near Bonner¿s Ferry, Idaho. His life mirrors the struggles and growing pains of the American West early in the 20th century. Grainier wrestles with loneliness and the social changes surrounding him. He endures the loss of his wife and daughter in a fire that sweeps through the area, and although he rebuilds and carries on, Grainer never really recovers the spark and promise of life in the transforming nation. Train Dreams feels much bigger in scope and ambition than its length would indicate.
ken1952 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Denis Johnson's stunning novella follows the life of Pacific Northwestern day laborer Robert Grainier. Achingly told, this is a story that delves deep into the heart of a man who represents countless men who were our grandfathers and great grandfathers. A breathtaking book.
krbrancolini on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I picked up "Train Dreams" after reading Anthony Doerr's review in the New York Times. I was intrigued by the concept that a novella or short story can be more powerful than a longer work because you can read it one sitting. At 116 pages, "Train Dreams" can easily be read in about 90 minutes, which is how long it took me. And as Doerr says, "In that hour and a half the whole crimped, swirling, haunted life of Robert Grainier rattles through the forests of your mind like the whistle of the Spokane International he hears so often in his dreams." Denis Johnson's writing is pure magic. Spare and lyrical, he draws the reader into a life that is at once simple and compelling. Robert inhabits a time and place in which a little boy could be put on trains with a destination pinned to his shirt. He doesn't know his parents' name or his birthday. He moves from town to wilderness living on income from odd jobs. When the novella opens, the reader sees disaster coming. Robert has a wife and baby daughter, but Johnson signals impending doom. Knowing this the reader also senses that Robert will move forward. At one point he recognizes that he is sad, but he does not dwell on life's disasters and disappointments. I have been haunted by the 90 minutes I spent with Robert Grainer.
Laura400 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a very nice novella. It's a quick read, but it really piles on the memorable episodes and characters. It's beautifully written, managing to be spare but full of life and beauty, love and sadness, mystery and humor.
ccayne on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Beautifully written novella about a man and his place in time, turn of the 20th century in the American West. It's an art to create imagery and feeling in spare prose and few pages and Johnson does a magnificent job. A good start for my first book of the year, read on my porch in the January sun in the northeast.
browner56 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
When Thoreau wrote ¿Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them¿, he might well have been thinking of someone like Robert Grainier. As the protagonist of Denis Johnson¿s brilliant novella, Grainier is a simple, unassuming man living in the American Northwest during the early part of the 20th century at a time when the country is transitioning from its agrarian past to its industrialized future. Indeed, the events that define his life stand as an effective metaphor for the dramatic changes taking place all around him.Orphaned at a young age¿shipped to the wilderness on a train, in fact¿Grainier spends his life as an itinerant laborer, working at various times on a railroad crew, in a logging outfit, and as a cart driver. For most of his life, he lives by himself in the woods, having few friends and grieving the tragic loss of a wife and child. His days are mundane and his nights are haunted by dreams of nature, his departed loved ones, and, yes, trains. When he passes away some 50 years after the events that begin the story, he leaves the world as decent and honest, but otherwise unremarkable, man. I found the writing in this book to be nothing short of exquisite. The author¿s spare and direct prose captures perfectly the mood and feel of a time and place that have all but disappeared from our memory. While not wholly sad, this powerful work definitely has an elegiac tone to it that conveys at once the feeling of celebration and mourning. That Johnson has been able to pack so much insight and nuance into barely more than 100 pages is truly a striking achievement. (Actually, `Train Dreams¿ originally appeared in a volume of short stories, although the version I read was a stand-alone work published ten years later.) This is one that I suspect I will be re-reading often in the years to come.
jasonlf on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This very short novella is a dreamlike look back at a drifter's life building train tracks, logging, and delivering largely in the Pacific Northwest, largely in the 1920s and 1930s (although some of the episodes are from when he was a child at the turn of the century or as late as the 1960s when he died). It transports you right into the world it describes: you can almost hear the clattering of the railroad, smell the sap from the trees and see the wildfires spreading up the mountain. There's not really anything in the way of plot and the other characters are not drawn particularly sharply, but that is not much of a hindrance in a work this length.
Jcambridge on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Found the book interesting and well written, but cannot say it was worthy of a Pulitzer nomination. I learned something about the timber industry!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story reads as someone recalling their own life’s events. It starts with a specific memory which leads Robert Grainier to recall a separate experience and then back to yet a different memory; and so he weaves back and forth as he retells his vivid, candid memories. As you sit back and read you learn not only about the kind of man Grainier is but also about life in the United States at this time in history. It is full of folklore and superstition only adding to its charm. It is wonderful, fun, light reading. A great way to spend a few hours on a quiet weekend.
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