Top positive review
12 people found this helpful
on 11 September 2013
Train Dreams is set in the American West in the first half of the twentieth century when America is moving towards industialisation. This wonderful, one might say, perfect novella tells the life story of Robert Grainier who works as a day labourer felling trees in massive forests to facilitate the laying of a railway network to connect the entire country. The story opens in the Idaho Panhandle and describes Grainier's role in the attempted murder of a Chinese worker accused of stealing from the company's stores. Even though the man escapes Grainier is still upset at his part in the attempted killing.
Grainier works as a choker "down in the woods where the sawyers laboured in pairs to fell the spruce, limbers worked with axes to get them clean and buckers cut them into eighteen-foot lengths before the chokers looped them around with cable to be hauled out by the horses." These logs were then used in the construction of the giant railway bridge across the Robinson Gorge. Grainier is very much aware that the work he does in the forests is hazardous even while the woods provide a livlihood and shelter. Over the course of the book large tracts of American forest will disappear and not just because of industrialisation but also due to a huge forest fire - a fire that has tragic consequences for Robert. I won't go into this in detail as I think it is best left to the reader to discover what transpired.
There isn't any real plot or a continuous storyline, rather the novella is a collection of struggles and minor victories for Robert who comes across as a survivor in a world where death and loss appear to be commonplace. Parts of the story have a dreamlike and even a nightmarish quality where Grainier sees a ghost-like wolf girl or at the end of the novella when Robert is at the theatre and sees a howling wolf boy on stage. Johnson manages to mix natural events with almost supernatural elements in this marvellous novella.
Grainier had once seen a wonder horse, the fattest man in the world, a wolf boy and a wolf girl and had once flown in a bi-plane; he had 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. Grainier lived more than eighty years. He had one lover- his wife Gladys, owned one acre of property, two horses and a wagon. He had never been drunk, purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He had no idea who his parents might have been.
Denis Johnson has written an almost flawless novel of an ordinary man trying to make a living in a period of sweeping change on the American frontier. In a mere 160 pages of understated, balanced and beautiful prose he manages to produce a truly haunting story. It is not always easy reading and I found the story of William Coswell Haley's niece particularly upsetting, but the writing is always captivating.
This is a wonderful work which deserves to be read and I will treasure my copy of Train Dreams. How Johnson manages to convey the essence of Robert Grainier and his life in such a short story is an amazing feat. Highly recommended.