“Train” is the eighth story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
“Train,” first published in the April 2012 issue of Haper’s magazine, is one of the longer pieces in this new collection. Like “Pride” this story closely follows a man, only here the man remains the focus throughout the entire story.
We first meet Jackson when he jumps off a train going through the Ontario countryside. It turns out he’s approaching his home town after serving in World War II. At first he can tell himself he just needs a bit more time; he’ll just walk the rest of the way. He can come up with excuses for his tardiness, and he will be believed. “But all the time he’s thinking this, he’s walking in the opposite direction.”
It will be some time before we know what he’s avoiding, but quickly Munro lets us know that, whatever it is, even if he’s successful, life will bring new things you’ll want to avoid:
Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.
He ends up walking to a small farm just off the tracks where he meets Belle, a woman ten or fifteen years older than he. Belle is friendly and a little child-like. Recently her mother, who required constant care and who couldn’t talk, died, leaving Belle compeltely alone in the world. Her father had been hit by a train many years earlier. When Jackson arrives the farm is in decline. In exchange for some food, he promises to complete some repairs and then be on his way.
The years pass, suddenly, without license, as they often do in Munro’s stories. People just assume Jackson and Belle are brother and sister. In all that time, Jackson never goes back home. Any fear he once harbored that someone from his old town would run into him in his new town are dispelled when he remembers that that just isn’t the way small towns work.
The years continue to pass until Belle gets sick. He convinces her it’s time to go to Toronto for medical treatment. Under medication, Belle shares some secrets about her past that Jackson wishes he’d never heard. He can’t handle the intimacy and abandons the farm with just as little fanfare as he joined it.
We’d think the story would stop sometime around there, but it doesn’t. If Jackson again wished for cancellation, what he’s found are new surroundings, and it’s here his past rears up.
While it may feel I’ve given away quite a bit of this story, I don’t believe that is true. I’ve gone only about halfway, and there are quite a few surprises in the first half. And, of course, this being Munro, much of the pleasure doesn’t come from what happens but from the texture and the thematic structure, that wish for cancellation, that sudden and easy realization “that a person could just not be there.”
It’s not my favorite of her stories, although, as usual, the more I think about it, the more I revisit it, the more it reveals and the more clearly I can see just how involved I’ve become in these lives. I’m not looking forward to the end of this book.