Book Review: “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

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.

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Book Review: “Shout Her Lovely Name” by Natalie Serber (short stories)

book review by Andria Williams (Navy wife, San Diego)

I love a life story like Natalie Serber’s (stay-at-home-mother writes doggedly over the years, eventually publishes short story collection), and I also love Natalie Serber’s stories. Her first collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, is a bright, unsparing look at the relationship between mothers and daughters.

In Serber’s stories, these mother-daughter relationships aren’t just complicated, they are Fraught. The stories are realistic, beautiful, scary, and sad, and Ms. Serber’s eye misses nothing.

Natalie Serber (file photo)

The titular story opens the book, and it’s a terrifying look into the mind of a mother obsessed with her daughter’s eating disorder. Serber has said that this story is “closer to the bone” than any of her others, and the fact that her own daughter goes by the nickname “Lovely” hints that there may be an autobiographical aspect to it (much as I hate poking around for autobiographical anything in fiction). The story is beautiful, rareified, claustrophobic — you are riveted, you nearly stop breathing. It’s written in the second person, as a sort of dark “guide” for mothers of an eating-disordered child.


Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter. She will tell you she didn’t mean it when she called you chubby. Hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest (p. 5).

There are glimmers of bleak humor:

‘She called me pathetic-cunt-Munchhausen-loser.’ Where did your daughter learn this language? Your daughter has been replaced by a tweaking rapper pimp with a psychology degree. ‘What does she mean?’ you ask.  (p. 9)

I chuckled there, but still read almost desperately, wanting to claw my way out of the beautiful cadence and heartbreaking imagery. The story ends on a note of hope, thank God.

And from there we launch into a whole series of stories devoted to the character of Ruby — a smart young woman who finds herself pregnant and alone — and her years of raising her serious, responsible daughter, Nora. Only one story in the middle of the book deviates from these two characters, making the Ruby-Nora stories a sort of “suite” of linked tales.

Ruby and Nora are fascinating characters — you cringe for Ruby, who’s too smart to always be chasing men who will leave her, and yet does; you ache for sweet Nora,  a bright, observant latchkey kid who is painfully aware of the way neighbors judge her mother, who waits up for her mother when she goes on dates. Nora is tremendously loyal to her mother — when she finally goes on a brief trip to meet her father, at age 14, she starts missing her mother before she’d even boarded the plane.

I pictured myself walking off the plane with her fringed suede purse on my shoulder. As much as I wanted to go, as often as I’d imagined my father’s life and how I might fit in, holding her purse, I missed her already (p. 133).

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The stories are wonderful, but I always have hangups about the “collection of linked stories” idea. (Are we seeing more of these lately? I also recently read The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer — again, primarily a series of linked stories about one central character.) The novelist in me can’t help thinking: If you really love these characters so much, if you can’t stop writing about them, why not just write a novel?The “suite of stories” idea has all the heart and character-love of a novel, but without the narrative urgency. It’s like seeing gorgeous little film clips of someone’s life, illuminating them, bringing them alive and then letting them go, over and over.

I’d invested a lot of time in  reading about Ruby and Nora, and I cared about them, and it wasn’t enough to be left with the image of Nora in her Santa Cruz apartment, working in a bakery, living with a man she doesn’t particularly love. This final Ruby-Nora story (which is not the final story in the book — it’s bookended by a separate short story about another family) didn’t feel like an ending. It didn’t pull things together for the characters the way a novel would have, and it got away with it because it’s a collection of linked stories, so it hired a Closer to take care of final business — that last short story, whose characters I didn’t feel like caring about after all the love I’d felt for Ruby and Nora. (It’s actually a great story. I held a grudge for a day and then I went back and read “Developmental Blah Blah” — that’s the title of the last story — and, like all of Serber’s writing, it stopped me in my tracks. So my initial hostility was unfair.)

But this is more of a complaint against the form, and not about Serber’s writing. You’ll be thinking about these characters for days, maybe weeks. You’ll think about your mother and your daughter and every mother-daughter pair you ever knew, and you’ll fume a bit at how sons get off so goddamn easy.

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