Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams by National Book Award-winning author Denis Johnson begins simply – Robert Grainier is attempting to help other rail workers throw a Chinese laborer off of a bridge (a mini-theme this week).  This scene is strange and funny and introduces us to America at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Robert Grainier is a quiet man and spends most of the story in isolation.  He starts a family and loses it just as easily.  He takes many seasonal jobs as a laborer.  An epic weight is given to an unassuming man who never so much as uses a telephone in his life.  Grainier is the constant in a sweeping and shifting country and along with the historical changes that took place he experiences a massive forest fire, an encounter with a feral child, a man shot by his own dog, and many restless nights and haunted dreams.
Denis Johnson’s writing is spare and clear and his prose for the dialects of his turn of the century characters is crisp and enveloping.  Each scene in the 113 page book feels like a complete story and despite the wide range of moods and events the atmosphere of transition holds oddly fast.  The following exchange pretty well exemplifies the characterization and Johnson’s ability to wring humor from uncertainty.
“Sir, are you dead?” he asked Peterson.
“Who?  Me?  Nope.  Alive,” said Peterson.
“Well, I was wondering – do you feel as if you might go on?”
“You mean as if I might die?”
“Yessir,” Grainier said.
“Nope.  Ain’t going to die tonight.”
“That’s good.”
“Even better for me, I’d say.”
For more Denis Johnson you could try Tree of Smoke for which he won the National Book Award or for more loners of bygone eras check out The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

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