Denis Johnson: Train Dreams

I’ve felt I should read Denis Johnson for a very long time.  I have most of his books on my shelf.  The problem has always been that there are many other books on my shelf I feel I should read as well, so I keep pushing Johnson back. Fortunately for me, then, this past year FSG published in hardback a novella Johnson published in The Paris Review, Train Dreams (Summer 2002), which won the O’Henry Award in 2003.  It was short enough that there was no good excuse to pass it up for another book.

Though it runs for only around 100 generously spaced pages, Train Dreams takes on one man’s entire life through snapshots and segments.  Here is how it opens:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Granier 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 Reailway in the Idaho Panhandle.

In 1917, Robert Granier is around 30 years old, he’s married, and he has an infant daughter.  But we don’t know any of that yet.  Johnson allows this opening scene – where several men are carrying the Chinese laborer to a bridge where they plan to throw him to his death – to play out in its suddenness for the first few pages.

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.

Throughout his life Robert Granier will think back on this event with gut-churning horror.  It’s not because he nearly killed someone, though he does feel some guilt about that (he can’t believe how quickly, how mindlessly he was embroiled in the commotion), it’s that the Chinese laborer cursed the group of men, and Robert Granier believes that the curse settled on him viciously.

From this compelling beginning, we move back and forth in Robert Granier’s life.  He doesn’t know where he came from, only that in 1893 he arrived by train at his cousins’ home in Fry, Idaho.  His cousins had various explanations for his origin, but they were contradictory; surely his aunt and uncle knew, but while they were alive he never thought to ask.  Though there are pockets of what cannot quite be called happiness, most of Robert Granier’s life is incredibly lonely, passing with the seasons as if in a dream he’s not sure he wants to be part of.  This is because, early on in the book and in Robert Granier’s life, the meager life he’s building for himself is completely gutted by “a fire stronger than God.”  One day, after working many miles away, Granier returns to the valley where he’d built his small cabin for himself and his wife and daughter:

All his life Robert Granier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dream-like business he’d ever witnessed waking — the brilliant pastels of the 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.

Not sure what’s become of his wife and daughter, Granier enters a kind of fugue state (made worse by the smoke and ash he inhales while searching for his home and then for his family).  This sets up the lonely, guilty life Granier will lead until his death sometime in the 1960s, becoming himself a kind of ghost of the region from a time almost forgotten, when forests were cleared and railroads spanned the mountain ridges.

15 thoughts on “Denis Johnson: Train Dreams

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I love Denis Johnson and have this at hand. Jesus’ Son is incredible, sure you’d love that, Trevor.

  2. Just to show that I occasionally part ways with both you and Lee, I am afraid that Tree of Smoke was the start and finish of my Denis Johnson reading. Loved your review for what it said and… I won’t be buying the book.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    Kevin, in a probably futile plea for your reconsideration, I would say that Tree Of Smoke is nothing much like his other stuff…and I’m fairly sure you’d like most of the latter.

  4. Trevor says:

    Not having read Tree of Smoke I can’t say this with complete confidence, but my impression of it from others is that it isn’t like Train Dreams.

    That said, I understand well how one book (or one story) can permanently turn you away rom an author. There are so many things out there to read, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to keep giving someone a second chance. For example, despite word that his novels are better than his stories, I’ll never read Sam Lipsyte, except to keep up with my New Yorker reading.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    I think the snap and cadence and fizzing mirth of Lipsyte is very much an acquired taste, but I dare you to give The Ask a go nonetheless!

  6. I had heard that Tree of Smoke was disliked by a few people who liked his other works.

    What a curious work it sounds. Desolate.

    For those of you who know Johnson, is this a better place to start than Jesus’ Son? 100 pages suggests yes.

  7. Lee Monks says:

    I liked Tree of Smoke. It’s more like Already Dead than those works that people seem to love most. Jesus’ Son I’ve gone on about at length, wonderful. But, Max, knowing the kinds of things you favour a little, why not try Nobody Move first? It’s an ideal ‘way in’.

  8. Nobody Move does sound fine. It sounds like fairly trad noir from a quick look online, is it more than that though? Is this one of those books (and there’s a fair few of them, noir lends to this) where noir blurs into literary fiction?

  9. Lee Monks says:

    No, not in the least. It’s pure trad noir from top to bottom. And all the better for it. Unless I’ve conveniently expunged any rogue highfalutin elements. But I don’t think I have.

  10. leroyhunter says:

    Max, to back up what Lee says, I think I mentioned Nobdoy Move to you on one of your Manchette reviews: they were that closely linked in my mind. So yes, it’s noir, no messing.

  11. I’ve downloaded a sample. Thanks both. Pure noir with no highfalutin elements, and reminiscent of Manchette. What more could one wish?

  12. Kevin McMahan says:

    Perhaps Tree of Smoke isn’t for everyone, but Train Dreams is a beautiful small piece of fiction and I cannot imagine anyone who appreciates fine writing not being moved by it. Give up 90 minutes of your life to this book and be rewarded.

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