Train Dreams

Denis Johnson

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 (winner of the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke) portrays these sentiments in Train Dreams, a perfectly understated novella that tells the story of everyman Robert Grainier. A bridge builder, lumberjack and one-time husband and father, Grainier believes he has been cursed for life when his wife and infant daughter disappear in a wildfire that engulfs their rural home. Though he rebuilds the dwelling in hopes that his family will one day return, 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.” Like the distant rumble of the locomotive in the still of night, memory acts as both a comfort and a disquieting reminder of the linear trajectory leading toward and away from him.