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.