Life by the tracks …

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

train dreamsI couldn’t bring myself to spend £12.99 on the hardback of this novella, but now it is out in paperback I snapped it up as I’d heard great things about it – and wilderness novels always seem to appeal to me.

Train Dreams tells the life story of Robert Grainier, who as a child arrives in Idaho on the train in the 1880s to live with his uncle having lost his parents – we never learn how. Robert becomes a hard worker, on the railroads and in the forests in the northern tip of the state close to the Canadian border. He marries relatively late, in his thirties, and after his wife and child are presumed dead in forest fire, lives on his own for the rest of his days into his eighties.

As the novel opens, Grainier is working on a railroad bridge across a gorge, and lends a hand to colleagues who are planning to throw a supposedly thieving Chinaman off the bridge. The Chinaman escaped, but Grainier feels cursed by having taken part in the shameful exploit…

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider…

Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, and how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone head and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.

He feels the Chinaman’s curse is responsible for the presumed death of his wife and daughter when a terrible forest fire burns everything in the whole valley where their homestead was built. He will eventually return there and rebuild the cabin, living a near hermit life with just his dog for company for half of each year, working the other months. Once his ageing joints are no longer any good for logging work, he becomes a haulier for hire with horses and wagon. He makes enough to get by, but it is a hard life.

I’m not generally comfortable with short stories, which often feel as if they’re over before they’ve started for me. However, I am happy with the novella / short novel form which has enough length to tell a good story, but in keeping it short makes every sentence count.

This is the case with Train Dreams. Johnson manages to compress eighty years into not many more pages, but also to encompass all that was important in Grainier’s life within that constraint, always with the railroad somewhere in the distance or in his dreams. We appreciate Grainier’s sheer hard work and pioneer spirit, we’re sad with him for the loss of his wife and child, and feel his loneliness when he returns to his backwoods cabin where he is left to commune with nature.

Grainier’s life in the cabin brings to mind another book rich with the pioneer spirit – Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful novel The Snow Child. There is more than that point of similarity, but I won’t expound for fear of spoiling, suffice to say that magic plays no part in Grainier’s life, except in his dreams and grief.

What is amazing about this short novel is that, despite its condensed nature, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. Every sentence does indeed count. Its beginning featuring the episode with the Chinaman may not initially endear you to Grainier, but his strength of character will get you as you read on.  This was my first experience of reading Denis Johnson, I’m sure it won’t be my last. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Granta paperback, 116 pages. First published 2002 – Buy

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10 thoughts on “Life by the tracks …

  1. I’ve read a little Denis Johnson, and “Already Dead” was my favourite – I highly recommend it. This one will be going on the wishlist too!

  2. I didn’t want to spend all that money on the hardback either. My solution was to buy Tree of Smoke but when it arrived I realised it was about 600 pages long. It intimidated me and has sat on my shelf, unread, ever since! I really should give it a try one day soon…

  3. I have a Denis Johnson novel buried around here somewhere which I should get to before trying any others by the same author. I don’t usually read historical stuff (beyond WWI) as I am usually annoyed by it.

  4. Oh goodness, I love the sound of this novella, thanks for the review. If it is even half as good as The Snow Child it will be worth reading.

  5. I’ve heard good things about Denis Johnson before, and an 80-page novella sounds like a good place to start with a new author! Also, I keep wondering whether to read The Snow Child – I’m afraid I’ll find it sentimental in a manipulative kind of way…? Obviously, I hope it isn’t!

    • I agree re short novels being a good place to start with a new author – I’m keen to read more of his work now.

      I absolutely adored The Snow Child – it was my book of the year last yr. I actually found it rather unsentimental in the way that fairy tales often are, and in tune with nature. I am still undecided whether the girl was feral or faerie.

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