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Train Dreams: A Novella Hardcover – August 30, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 162 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Tree of Smoke:

“Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book . . . It ought to secure Johnson's status as a revelator for this still new century.” —Jim Lewis, The New York Times

Praise for Train Dreams:

“[A] severely lovely tale . . . The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured. I started reading ‘Train Dreams’ with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story’s unaffected tact and honesty . . . Any writer can use simple prose to describe the raising of a cabin or the cutting down of trees, but only very good writers can use that prose to build a sense of an entire community, and to convey, without condescension, that this community shares some of the simplicity of the prose. Chekhov could do this, Naipaul does it in his early work about Trinidad, and Johnson does it here, often using an unobtrusive, free indirect style to inhabit the limited horizons of his characters . . . A way of being, a whole community, has now disappeared from view, and is given brief and eloquent expression here.” —James Wood, The New Yorker

“National Book Award winner Johnson (Tree of Smoke) has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer . . . The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers . . .  Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred)

“National Book Award-winner Johnson, ever the literary shape-shifter, looks back to America’s expansionist fever dream in a haunting frontier ballad about a loner named Robert Granier . . . Johnson draws on history and tall tales to adroitly infuse one contemplative man’s solitary life with the boundless mysteries of nature and the havoc of humankind’s breakneck technological insurgency, creating a concentrated, reverberating tale of ravishing solemnity and molten lyricism.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume . . . but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson’s epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus’ Son . . . An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

“Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is like a long out-of-print B-side, a hard-to-find celebrated work treasured by those in the know that’s finally become available to the rest of us . . . . Train Dreams is a peculiarly gripping book. It palpably conjures the beauty of an American West then still very much a place of natural wonder and menace, and places one man’s lonely life in that landscape, where he’s at once comfortably at home and utterly lost.” —Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Johnson is one of our finest writers. His characters are usually not the high and mighty but the down-and-out, sometimes marginalized individuals who struggle to communicate their deeper longings or their encounters with the transcendent. A poet, he infuses his narratives with images that sparkle and even jolt but never overwhelm the reader . . . Johnson has the unique ability to draw us into a story and a character until we encounter our own questions about mortality and meaning . . . when we leave this man and this book, we feel the loss, which reverberates in our own souls. We recognize in Grainier's dreams of trains our own fears and longings. Johnson in his poignant prose helps us feel such things.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle

Train Dreams is a gorgeous, rich book about the classic American myth, but written for a country that’s lost faith in its own mythology . . . Train Dreams, luscious with grief, regret, and lowered expectations, is a lesson in end-of-the-frontier humility for a country anticipating apocalypse.” —K. Reed Perry, Electric Literature

“Johnson captures the feeling of the woods and the small towns built around mining, logging and the new railroads. Indians and Chinese laborers also play significant roles . . . The writing is spare and frequently beautiful; Johnson’s backwoods dialogue and tall tales are often hilarious; and he graces us with such wonderful words as ‘pulchritude’ and ‘confabulation’—it’s a shame we don’t hear them much anymore.” —Stephen K. Tollefson, San Francisco Chronicle

“This musical little novella, originally published in 2003 in the Paris Review, is set mostly in the 1920s, and in the logging camps and train-station towns of Idaho and of the Pacific Northwest. It is wholly Johnson's own.

His hero, Robert Grainier, a sometimes logger and sometimes hauler, is as dislocated as any wandering druggy from an earlier Johnson book. And in these logging camps and train towns, Johnson has found a territory as strange and unpredictable as any dystopic landscape of his imagination. In a way, Train Dreams puts me in mind of a late Bob Dylan album: with the wildness and psychedelia of youth burned out of him, Johnson's eccentricity is revealed as pure Americana.” —Gabriel Brownstein, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“A meditative, often magical book . . . Deceptively simple language and arresting details make this a book to read slowly . . . Johnson’s portrait of a man who stands still as life marches on is itself something timeless.” —Kate Tuttle, Boston.com

“Take the time to peruse Johnson's corpus, and the inescapable conclusion is that its recurring elements are passions, revisited thoughtfully, not out of complacency or lack of imagination.

Train Dreams drives this spike home in two ways. The first is that its time period marked a major departure for Johnson, one presumably demanding a staggering deal of research. The second is that its tone, more subdued than Johnson's usual, had to have presented a challenge. He manages to avoid two of the snares that await writers of historical fiction—on the one hand, anachronism . . . on the other hand, an anxious dependency on archaic words and cherry-picked, jarring period detail. Maybe it helped matters that Johnson is a poet. His language keeps frontier passion in the yoke of plausible old-time discretion . . . [Train Dreams has] a delicacy of language and a mythic simplicity of storytelling that would slip the grasp of many writers.” —Stefan Beck, The Barnes and Noble Review

“[Train Dreams] is a triumph of spare writing that sketches the life of [Robert] Grainier, a logger and hauler born in 1886, and who dies, in a different world, in 1968 . . . in a blend of myth and history, Johnson builds a world around Grainier . . . Johnson, a poet, playwright and novelist, won the National Book Award in 2007 for his sprawling Vietnam War novel, Tree of Smoke. But he goes short as well as he goes long. Train Dreams . . . is a gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told.” —Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“Johnson’s new novella may be his most pared-down work of fiction yet, but make no mistake—it packs a wallop . . . Train Dreams is a small book of weighty ideas. It renders the story of America and our westward course of empire in the most beautiful and heartbreaking manner imaginable . . . Train Dreams explores what was lost in the process of American growth. Much to his credit, Johnson doesn’t simply posit industry and nature against each other, or science and religion, or even human and animal, but instead looks at how their interactions can transform both. And [Robert] Grainier is there through all of this examination, over the course of his long and sad life, to serve as our witness and maybe even our conscience.” —Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald

“I first read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery . . . Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I’d page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson’s evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive . . . 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 . . . it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written.” —Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review

“Johnson beautifully conveys what he calls ‘the steadying loneliness’ of most of Grainier's life, the ordinary adventures of a simple man whose people are, we hear, ‘the hard people of the no...

About the Author

Denis Johnson is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 116 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (August 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374281149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281144
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (162 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #424,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Denis Johnson won an O. Henry prize for this novella of the old American West in 2003. It originally appeared in the Paris Review but is now reissued and bound in hardback with an apt cover art--a painting by Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton called "The Race." If you contemplate the painting for a while, you may feel the ghost of the book's protagonist, Robert Grainier, as he, too, felt the ghosts and spirits of the dead.

Robert Grainier is a man without a known beginning--at least, he didn't know his parents, and neither did he know where he was from originally. Some cousin suspected Canada, and said that he spoke only French when he was left off in Fry, Idaho, circa 1893, arriving there on the Great Northern Railroad as a young lad. His aunt and uncle were his parents, and he grew up in the panhandle by the Kootenai River with the loggers, the Indians, the Chinese, and the trains.

As the book opens in the summer of 1917, Grainier is helping his railroad crew of the Spokane International Railway (in the Idaho panhandle) hold a struggling Chinese laborer accused of stealing. They meant to throw him from the trestle, sixty feet above the rapids at the gorge, but the man, cursing and speaking in tongues, broke free and went hand-over-hand from beam to beam, until he disappeared.

"The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully...and any bad thing might come of it."

And that was the signal incident--that curses, spirits, and demons would inhabit the landscape of Grainier's dreams. Often, in the background, is heard the melancholic whistle of the trains.
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Format: 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.
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I thoroughly enjoyed Denis Johnson's novella--Train Dreams. The book takes you through a somewhat meandering tale of Robert Grainer who held various jobs in his mor ehtan 80-year old life. The ones most prominently described are his time as a logger in the woods east of Spokane, WA and his job later in life as a transporter of people and packages from place to place via horse and buggy. Grainer's wife and child die at an unfortunately young age and he ends up living life really very much on his own in what sort of feels to the reader although not totally described as such as a dilapidated shack on the same hallowed ground and his former residence. Some really excellent lines written by Johnson and specifically a great up and back between Grainer and a man he was transporting who after being shot was close to death. The book itself won't take you much more than a good sitting to complete and is well worth the time.
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In 2007 Denis Johnson won the National Book award for his epic novel of the Vietnam War, Tree of Smoke. In 2012 his novella Train Dreams, which was originally released as a short story in a 2002 issue of the Paris Review, was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction chosen by three jurors (Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, Susan Larson). the other finalists were: The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace (and his editor) and Swamplandia by the highly touted young writer, Karen Russell. None of the three were ultimately chosen as no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year. Agreed, it is an odd lot, but Train Dreams, as spare and arcane as it might have seemed to the Pulitzer board, is more than worthy of the influential accolade.

Robert Grainier, whose life is bracketed by timber, locomotives, wolves in the great northern woods, is Johnson's everyman hero in this modern American folk tale. Grainier, born around the turn of the century, and living most of his mostly solitary life near the Kootenai and Moyea rivers in the Idaho panhandle, is witness to a lot of history and a lot of change in his eighty odd years, absorbing it all through a magical kind of reality with painful clarity. He never knew his parents and dies alone, a hermit of sorts yet he personifies the perseverance of mankind to coexist in the feral world.

When he was young he got by working odd jobs cutting timber, not until he was 31 did he meet Gladys Olding, a nice girl with "an easy smile" who introduced herself one Sunday after church. Grainier takes her out one hot June day to show her his property, a one acre tract of land on the short bluff by the Moyea river.
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