32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Elegaic and celebratory, Epic and small,
This review is from: Train Dreams: A Novella (Hardcover)
I first read this as a short story in the O'Henry Prize stories anthology for 2003. It stayed with me then, and I was compelled to revisit it in this incarnation. (I haven't looked at the two versions closely enough to know what the differences are, but they don't seem to be great.)
So many images came to mind when reading this. I thought of the poet Jack Gilbert's description of Pittsburgh steel mills, of James Dickey's poem "The Sheep Child", of Bob Dylan's album Love & Theft, and of course, Thomas Hart Benton. The time when men did big things, when steam-powered locomotives groaned, and when the line between civilization and wilderness was still being formed.
Through the story of Robert Granier, Johnson describes this time in American history that was a bridge between a more primitive, agrarian time and modernity. There are bridges, too, between past and present, natural and supernatural, and paganism and Christianity.
We first see Granier, the story's main character,as a worker on a railroad bridge. The scale of both nature and the work the men do is grand, and is described with aching beauty by Johnson. Granier is an unusual main character, and despite his misfortunes, it's hard to feel a lot of empathy towards him. It doesn't matter, though, since the real main character of the story is the American northwest in the early 1900s. Viewing this time and place, through the Granier's eyes is effective, and there are many entertaining minor characters to help paint the picture. Granier's story is concluded shortly before the end of the novella, but the elegy for this period of time is the concern of the last paragraph, and its devastating last sentence.