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Train Dreams: A Novella Paperback – May 22, 2012
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“[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 . . .” ―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.” ―Publishers 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 . . .” ―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
"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. ―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.” ―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.” ―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 northwestern mountains,' and toward the end even convinces us of his character's inquisitive and perhaps even deeper nature than we might first have imagined. Grainier ‘lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s,' we learn. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will find him living on.” ―Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Train Dreams is a portrait of containment, of compression and restraint . . . On the one hand, what Johnson is evoking is the sweep of time, of history, as seen through an archetypal life. Grainer is an ideal filter for such an effort: born in one century, living mostly in another, he becomes a three-dimensional metaphor for the industrialization of the country, the slow passage from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul.” ―David. L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“Train Dreams is an eloquently scattershot biography of a fictional labourer who lived much of his life in the woods, alone. It's a compressed epic about wolf-children, ghosts, wilderness, fearsome weather and the lingering threads that kept man tied to animal in the western parts of our continent--a connection lost to the past century . . . [It] is as magnificent, spellbinding and intermittently awkward as anything Denis Johnson has ever done . . .” ―José Teodoro, Edmonton Journal
“While in [Johnson's] writerly company you cannot help but believe that the world is a function of his apprehension of it, and it is this quality that lends his matchless prose its sense of having been less written than received, an effortless and profound transmission, radio waves unscrolling in the black sea between the prairie and the star map--all that heady bullshit, but ringing true . . . Train Dreams is also very funny. Quirky, colorful, off-beat characters intrude on Grainier's solitude at regular intervals, each one a babbling fool.” ―Justin Taylor, The Faster Times
“Grainier's story is the story of an ordinary man told in an extraordinary way in extraordinarily spare yet magical prose . . . some of Johnson's best writing is on display here. It is a book of wonders both real and imagined, of great locomotives that traversed the continent and sawmills that conquered the big woods, of a curse by a persecuted ‘Chinaman' that (perhaps) brings destruction on Grainier's wife and daughter and their little cabin in the woods, a great fire Grainier would remember his entire life, like something Biblical in modern times.” ―Anthony Wallace, The Arts Fuse
“At his worst, man is haunted by the past--the past reappearing in our dreams as a constant reminder of mistakes, of loved ones lost and of the indelible mark left on our memory by the sometimes violent imagery of life. Denis Johnson . . . portrays these sentiments in Train Dreams, a perfectly understated novella that tells the story of everyman Robert Grainier . . . Grainier is a man ultimately measured by movement: '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.'" ―Lucas Sarcona, News Review
“Denis Johnson's novel . . . is like a crystal: hard, gem-like, and intricately structured . . . Johnson's prose is simple yet lyrical, and its clear beauty often reflects the things it describes . . . Even more striking are the descriptions of Grainier's almost elemental lonesomeness.” ―Anthony Domestico, Commonweal
About the Author
Denis Johnson (1949-2017) 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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The railroad was a key element in the “settlement” of the West. Johnson depicts the difficulties of spanning the gorges of the Rockies with wooden trestles, long before they would be replaced by steel ones. A chief bane of the West are forest fires. One plays the central role in Grainier’s life: one killed his wife and infant daughter. I thought it might have been the same fire that occurred in the same region, and was depicted in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. But it was not; in Johnson’s novella, the fire was a decade later. Grainier must come to terms with his loss.
Grainier will work as a lumberjack, making enough money during the season to survive the rest of the year. Lumberjacking, like masonry, is a young man’s game; he retires, fortunately, before one of the numerous accidents in the field harm him. Johnson has a keen eye for the telling detail, like the traveling circuses that would entertain the “rubes” with the “fattest man in the world.” Grainier would also see Elvis’ train.
Grainier, a life, lived honestly, on one’s own terms, shaped by the natural environment. I do wonder how a writer acquires the “raw material” that can be crafted by a skilled hand into such a superlative story. Usually the acquisition remains hidden; the finished product is the only object on the shelf, and it is a well-polished one. 5-stars.
A good tale as well
The beauty of Robert Grainier is how well he fits his local and how artfully Denis Johnson captures that setting, the Northwest is not the America you know unless you know it. There are people who should not read Train Dreams for it confuses them that shows in the ratings I do believe.
The first thing you will notice if you go far north and west is the sky, it is strikingly different and that is just a hint that you are not where you thought you might be.*
The people in all its environments were wanders. Old folk song: ‘What was you name in the East, Did you murder your wife and run for your life?’
Robert had a story but no one could tell it to him and he came as a child. Johnson paints the qualities of the region from his opening ‘China-man’ occurrence he nowhere dwells on these elements but sentence by sentence creates the imagery of a wilderness being settled.
If you can let that image absorb you, you will delight in this short work.
Robert Grainier a very simple man you will not quickly forget.
*(Death was common place in the lumber industry an every day occurrence somewhere and promoted the Wobbles I.W.W. who taught Revolution with unionism unknown elsewhere; the mines organized by a communist union not Lewis’ United Mine Workers – different indeed; a wild frontier.)