Friday, October 19, 2012

Train Dreams

 By Denis Johnson
New York, Picador, 2002
116 pages     Novella

Once in a while a book affects you in profound ways. Such was my experience reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Written as a story for the Paris Review in 2002, when it won the O’Henry Award,  the story has just recently been printed as a hard copy novella, and it was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. If you will recall, no Pulitzer Prize was given for fiction this year. So, being shortlisted is just as good as winning.

Grainier is a man of the West in the early years of the 20th century. He works at all kinds of odd jobs, lives in the woods, and is, at heart, the loneliest of men. “Grainier had also once seen a wonder horse, and a wolf-boy, and he’d flown in the air in a biplane in 1927. He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.”

Grainier is a Christian man, a Methodist, in prohibition Idaho. He works on the railroad, chops wood, and does all sorts of other odd jobs all his life. When he is in his 30s, he builds a small cabin on a small piece of land and marries a young woman who soon bears him a daughter. Because he isn’t used to having people around, he leaves his wife and baby often, and in the pivotal experience in his life, the cabin and his family is consumed in a forest fire while he is away. 

After that experience, he becomes one of those people who live on the fringe of society; one of those people who are just around. You know them but then, again, you don’t. Johnson says that Grainier was “a man of whom it might have been said, but nothing was ever said of him, that he had little to interest him.”

The reader of  Train Dreams knows him, and our hearts break for his loneliness, for his isolation, and for his loss. However, all is not heaviness with Grainier. He has an interesting perspective on the ways in which the West is changing; how he sees the changes is very different from the way we view those changes from our perspective nearly 100 years later. One of my favorite stories in the book is when he is operating a livery service and takes a man who had been shot by a dog (yes I wrote that right) to the hospital. His exchange with the wounded man is more than humorous, it is outright funny. Also very funny is the tale about the time he took a biplane ride.

The most magnificent part of Train Dreams is how concise it is. There is not a wasted word, and yet in its sparseness, it is profound.The reviewer in The New Yorker says: “Clean, American simplicity in prose is easy to mimic and hard to make. The New York Times reviewer says that is the beauty of the book. The paucity of the words makes it all the more dynamic. He also says: “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.”

Train Dreams is a short one to two hour read, and as I thought about Grainier, I kept thinking, “I know this man.” Then I realized that I had been thinking about my Uncle Harry all the way through the book. Uncle Harry was a World War One veteran, a silent man who spent his life in Seattle working as a desk clerk in a men's hotel. I never met him until he retired and moved back to Minnesota to live with his sister, my Grandma. Did we ever get to know him? Probably not. For all the years he lived with my Grandma, all I ever knew about him was that he liked to watch wrestling on television, and he put sugar on everything, including tomatoes and macaroni and cheese. I would guess that he suffered from PTSD from the war, which was not diagnosable at that time, of course. Uncle Harry lived to be 100 and remains a mysterious figure in my life. 

Denis Johnson is one of America’s most prominent novelists, the winner of the National Book Award. He was a new author to me, and I want to read another one of his books

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