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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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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 folksong: ‘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 ‘Chinaman’ 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.)
Some reviews mention that a version of this novella appeared previously. Did Johnson make any changes? The answer is no. I was able to compare the text of the just-released book to the text found in the Summer 2002 edition of The Paris Review, at pages 250-312, where the story made its first appearance. (Copies of it are available from used book dealers on Amazon, here: Paris Review, the #162 Summer 2002.) The 2002 and 2011 publications track exactly, paragraph for paragraph. The only edits I spotted are insignificant: things like changing a reference to "one-hundred-twelve-foot" so that it now appears as "112-foot," and an all-caps shout of a dying man, "RIGHT REVEREND RISING ROCKIES!" now appearing as a lower case utterance: "right reverend rising rockies!"
The story is also available in the anthology (still in print), The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 (Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories). In the back of that volume, in a Jurors' Comments section, there are two eloquent appreciations of Johnson written by Jennifer Egan and David Guterson, both of whom declare "Train Dreams" to be their favorite story the year.
My positive experience of "Train Dreams" came the old fashioned way: by reading the book in its physical state. If you're considering buying the audio version (which is short enough to fit on two CDs), there is a free audio excerpt of the first five pages (three-and-a-half minutes long, read by the great Will Patton) available on the publisher's website. To find it, just Google the words, MacMillan Train Dreams.
Some people are enchanted by the book's cover illustration. It is a reproduction of a lithograph entitled "The Race," produced in an edition of 250 impressions in 1942 by the American regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton. A hearty debate could be launched over how well "The Race" reflects the themes of "Train Dreams," and whether the wild horse represents the essential character of Grainier.
I think the picture fascinates us because of the horse's devotion to a wholly quixotic pursuit: the urge to outrun and outlast a devilish machine nipping at its tail. Then there's its moody, dreamlike atmosphere. Just as in dreams, if you study the picture carefully you find yourself pushed and pulled visually between reality and a distortion of reality. In the foreground reflecting pool, the horse is rhymed by its ghost -- or is it a visitor from the spirit world? The horse's free-waving mane and tail are echoed in the background by the steam engine's ominous smoke trail. When Benton was asked to explain the inspiration for this print, he noted how it was a "common enough scene in the days of the steam engine," when he used to observe how "horses so often ran with the steam trains." Fascinating dioramas, a feeling of being caught within a dream state, and encounters with ominous fate, are all things you will re-experience when you open this stunning book.