Book Review by Andria Williams (Navy wife, San Diego)
Photo of Denis Johnson by Robert Miller
(If given a choice of author photographs, I will always pick the one with the dog)
You can read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams in 90 minutes, but that’s only one reason to read it. Train Dreams takes you, in one unspoiled bubble of experience, through the entire life of lumberman and railroad builder Robert Grainier, who participates in the taming of the American West in the early 20th century.
Grainier stood among the railroad gang and watched while the first locomotive crossed the 112-foot interval of air over the 60-foot-deep gorge, traveling on the bridge they’d made. Mr. Sears stood next to the machine, a single engine, and raised his four-shooter to signal the commencement. At the sound of the gun the engineer tripped the brake and hopped out of the contraption, and the men shouted it on as it trudged very slowly over the tracks and across the Moyea to the other side, where a second man waited to halt it and jump aboard before it ran out of track. The men cheered and whooped. Grainier felt sad. He couldn’t think why. He cheered and hollered too. (p. 11)
This straightforward, strong-verbed, manly prose (gorge, track, gun, whooped, sad) is what you’ll get in Train Dreams: plain-spoken descriptions of things that sound fantastical, and fantastical descriptions of things that seem small. It’s a hybrid of motley wonders, a tour through the big moments of western expansion, a quiet sifting through one man’s mind.
In this way, the scope of Train Dreams is both epic and very small. It’s half tall tale and half psychological foray. Construction and loss happen on an epic, wild-west scale.
The world that Grainier confronts — or, more accurately, is confronted by, because he’s really just minding his own business — is a mysterious, pre-1900s place that can be strange, cruel, occasionally exciting; no matter what, he accepts its caprices with little questioning.
Huge trees are wrestled to the ground, wolves roam by the hundreds. An outbreak of influenza takes a man’s 13 siblings in one fell swoop; a wildfire devours a swath of Idaho countryside, smoting every living thing in its path. Grainier’s own wife and infant daughter die in this fire, and he rebuilds a small cabin on the spot where their old one was, carrying out a quiet life that sometimes brings him face-to-face with wonder. He wanders over to the Idaho State Fair and sees his first airplane, which he takes a ride in; he’s aware “only of a great amazement”… “a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered” (p. 85). He watches trains cross bridges he has helped to build, he transports a man who claims to have been shot by his own dog; for income he drives a horse-pulled cart, soon to be replaced by automobiles.
The language in this book is gorgeous, cinematic; if you can take Robert Grainier at face value and allow him his almost childlike innocence, you’ll enjoy this book very much. (Perhaps his most common emotion is that of wonder — he is always amazed, astonished, agape, and so on — and occasionally, the dialogue can feel almost too folksy. This was bothersome to me only when Grainier was speaking to his wife, and they felt the need to say each other’s names at the beginning and end of each sentence — or it felt that way, anyhow. “Thank you, Bob.” “Do you like your sarsaparilla?” “Yes, Bob.”…”Say some of the words, Glad” etc.)
But those are minor complaints, and, overall, this mesmerizing little book is well worth the read. Like all good fiction, it will honestly transport you, working its way in an almost imperceptible build until you get to the last line, which will hit you like a thunderclap that’s come after a hundred little rumbles, and leave the page resonant and reverberating in your hand.