Whether it’s characterized as a novel or, as his publisher would have it, a novella, Denis Johnson’s TRAIN DREAMS, originally published in the Paris Review in 2002 and a PEN/O. Henry Prize winner, is the exquisitely told story of one man’s extraordinary life, spanning a wide swath of the 20th century in the rugged forests of the Pacific Northwest.
"Some of the most intense pleasures of TRAIN DREAMS flow from Johnson’s keen appreciation for the natural beauty of its gorgeous setting."
From the story’s opening pages, it’s clear that Robert Grainier is a man devoted to hard work. He’s employed as a railway laborer, building and repairing bridges for the Spokane International Railway across deep gorges in the Idaho Panhandle and Washington State, “where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.” And when that task is finished, he trades it for the equally dangerous and difficult job of hauling timber out of the massive forests. He “relished the work, the straining, the heady exhaustion, the deep rest at the end of the day.”
But at heart, Grainier is a devoted family man, and the moment that defines his life is the fire that devastates the Idaho river valley where he’s settled, killing his wife and young daughter and devastating his modest homestead. When he’s finally able to enter the remains of that dwelling, “his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away.” From that event forward, he devotes himself to the task of rebuilding a new life from the ashes of his old one. In a series of episodes, often tinged with memories and dreams that conjure up Grainier’s profound loss, Johnson follows this decent, uncomplicated man’s determination to live his life with dignity and purpose.
There’s a certain Job-like quality to Grainier’s outlook, a patient, if sometimes pained, acceptance of the hand fate has dealt him, coupled with an appreciation of the pleasures of honest, hard labor and a life lived close to the land. What Johnson best captures in this elemental yet eloquent story is the way that the days and years pile up into a broad sweep of time, bringing profound change over the course of a lifetime of more than eight decades.
In all that, Johnson continues to display his talent for leavening even the darkest story with wry wit. Grainier, who starts a modest hauling service, transports a man who claims he’s been shot by his own dog “in self defense.” The humor continues as he helps an old friend with designs on a newly-widowed woman move her belongings to a new home, watching her spurn the desperate suitor along the way.
Some of the most intense pleasures of TRAIN DREAMS flow from Johnson’s keen appreciation for the natural beauty of its gorgeous setting. In one scene, Grainier watches a herd of cattle being driven across a frozen river: “They moved onto the blank white surface and churned up a snowy fog that first lost them in itself, then took in all the world north of the riverbank, and finally rose high enough to hide the sun and sky.” When he returns to the cabin he’s rebuilding on the site of his destroyed home, he notices how “clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees.”
It’s that same precision and economy of language that allows him to offer this concise, moving summary of his subject’s life just before the story ends:
“Grainier himself lived more than eighty years…In his time he’d traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he'd never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana. He’d had one lover --- his wife, Gladys --- owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once on an aircraft. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him.”
As Robert Grainier’s tale unfolds, the way of life that defines it slowly passes from the scene. In this spare, beautiful story, Denis Johnson memorably traces those parallel passages.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 8, 2011
Train Dreams: A Novella