Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Denis Johnson is one of our greatest living American writers. That’s a pretty big statement, but I don’t think I’ll hear a lot of argument.
I picked up his latest, Train Dreams, not realizing it was a republication of a story that appeared in the Paris Review and then the O. Henry Prize Stories in 2003. Johnson won the 2007 National Book Award for Tree of Smoke. His collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, also got massive attention. (Jesus’ Son was made into a movie, but the movie put me to sleep.) Plainly, Johnson’s received plenty of critical acclaim for his work.
Train Dreams is a novella, its hardcover edition coming in at 116 pages. It tells the story of Robert Grainier, an itinerant railroader and lumberjack in the 20th century. He lives a fairly blameless life, more being done to than doing to others. This book feels like a birth, the birth of our corporate nation. The birth feeling is a little odd, although perhaps not, as the protagonist’s own birth is indeterminate; he arrived as a small child on a train. Grainier is like a ghost, sort of, living his life morally, but not passing anything on. His wife and perhaps his child die in a fire while he’s away. It seems he lived a long life and got around some, but he never lived at all. When he died in 1968, he rested alone in his cabin for five or six months, and nobody missed him. Then he was buried in an unmarked grave by strangers.
The writing style, which I suppose could be labeled as “dirty realism,” reminds me of some of my favorites: William Kennedy, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver.
So Train Dreams tells the story of a life, and that may be what gives it its epic flavor—even though it’s possible to read it in one sitting. There aren’t many stories of this length that can do this: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and maybe Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. (Even though Proulx’ story was released in a standalone hardback, maybe it’s just a short story—which makes it all the more remarkable.)
I mean, it’s easier to be epic in a Doctor Zhivago-length effort, although that’s also beyond most writers.
As I sit here and try to work my way through themes of this book, I find myself multivalent and conflicted. Try these on for size: This is a book that either says, “An individual life is meaningless” or “An individual life is majestic.” Of course, there are others: “It’s how we treat other beings when there’s nobody looking that determines whether our own lives are meaningless.”
I’m thinking, too, about how the book begins with a racist attack on a Chinese railroad worker but ends in the Vietnam era. I wish I could quote the last few pages of the book, as this is some of the most lyrical writing I’ve read in a long time, but here’s a bit from near the end that sums things up: “In his time he’d traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he’d never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana. He’d had one lover—his wife, Gladys—owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once on an aircraft. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him.”