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 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 trees, 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
This novella is a work of great magical story telling. A story that will lay for some time in your thoughts, of novella length but holds depth and meaning more than many nine hundred page novels out there now. I can’t stress enough on how you must read this. If I ever one day i write a novella I aspire and dream to write with this quality and craftsmanship.
The main protagonist is a man of good virtue he is on the straight and narrow, due to many things he has witnessed and taking account of. One day in his past he met and learned from a man in the wilderness, he was in distress and pain, a vagrant alcoholic who spilled out his crimes in his last breath in. This rather rude awakening in his young age left a mark and he kept away from intoxicants and lust. He became a hard worker on the railroad of a bygone era.
Time passed and he wed a girl of fine character, who he met at a church meeting.
They had a child a girl. He regularly went off to work in various towns, on one days return he found a horrible site the woods and town was overcome by fire and his loved ones no where to be found. He looked for them all over town all the places they had visited previously but no sign. This terror of his missing family eventually had an effect on his psyche and he had many sleepless nights due to having very bad nightmares of his wife and child. The years passed by and he tried to pick up his life again working other towns but eventually he finds himself back again home.
There has become word of a wolf-girl, a kind of half wolf and human creature in the wilderness. Our main character fears the darkness and crossing paths with this myth. It’s only a matter of time in that which he find out if it be folly or fact.
This has some really poignant and happy moments. You feel the desperate times and the atmosphere, the fear, the love and the loss. Be prepared to possibly shed a tear in this heart felt work of literal art as the author carries you into the footsteps of one memorable characters life, through his dreams and nightmares.
Denis Johnson is a author that I am liking more and more and comes highly recommended by many authors including Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Heathcock who recommended this to me.
Actually these three authors Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Heathcock carry original potent voices, they write stories that penetrate and touch the heart and remain in your psyche, they may stay in your dreams for an eternity!
This novella is a work of magical realism that has a hypnotic potent voice, sprawling and engrossing violence and beauty.
Its words will remain for a time like ancient carvings in a tree.
I had to read this twice and have highlighted these excerpts below. (There was even more than this!)
“Meanwhile Robert Grainier had passed his thirty fifth birthday. He missed Gladys and Kate, his Li’l Girl and Li’l Li’l Girl, but he’d lived thirty two years a bachelor before finding a wife, and easily slipped back into a steadying loneliness out here among the countless spruce.”
“But the captain said he feared an influenza epidemic like the one in 1897. He himself had been orphaned then, his entire family of thirteen siblings dead in a single week.”
“But maybe the incident affected him in a way nobody could have traced”
“The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.”
“Soon he was passing through a forest of charred, gigantic spears that only a few days past had been evergreens. The world was gray, white, black, and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning and yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire.”
“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.”
“The creature needed to be taught its nature, Grainier felt. One evening he got down beside it and howled. The little pup only sat on its rump with an inch of pink tongue jutting stupidly from its closed mouth. “You’re not growing in the direction of your own nature, which is to howl when the others do,” he told the mongrel. He stood up straight himself and howled long and sorrowfully over the gorge, and over the low quiet river he could hardly see across this close to nightfall … Nothing from the pup.”
“But often, thereafter, when Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good. It flushed out something heavy that tended to collect in his heart, and after an evening’s program with his choir of British Columbian wolves he felt warm and buoyant.”
“The wolves and coyotes howled without letup all night, sounding in the hundreds, more than Grainier had ever heard, and maybe other creatures too, owls, eagles—what, exactly, he couldn’t guess—surely every single animal with a voice along the peaks and ridges looking down on the Moyea River, as if nothing could ease any of God’s beasts. Grainier didn’t dare to sleep, feeling it all to be some sort of vast pronouncement, maybe the alarms of the end of the world.”
“Dark theater full of disembodied voices discussing plain facts about secret sins he would die, he would be dragged down to Hell and tortured in his parts eternally before the foul and stinking President of all Pulchritude. Naked, he stood swaying in his yard.”
“The forests that filled his life were so thickly populous and so tall that generally they blocked him from seeing how far away the world was, but right now it seemed clear there were mountains enough for everybody to get his own. The curse had left him, and the contagion of his lust had drifted off and settled into one of those distant valleys.”