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4.2 out of 5 stars
Train Dreams
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10 of 10 people found the following review 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 October 2013
I've read Train Dreams twice in the last fortnight. Once, chapter by chapter. Once in one go. Both ways worked. The book is almost perfect.

I am in awe of the writing. The plotting is superb. The dialogue is sparse but true. The prose language is spare but wonderfully put together. I kept stopping to re-read individual sentences, stunned by the concise evocation of scenes and characters.

The life of Robert Grainier - his fragmented past, his backbreaking work, his marriage and child - is told with a dispassion that manages, although it shouldn't, to engage and grip the reader. It leaps around in place and time, yet remains cohesive and utterly compelling. And the supernatural elements are both shocking and life-affirming.

There is a review on the back cover of the paperback from the Scotsman, which suggests that, if they were eligible for the Man Booker, American books of this quality would be hard to beat. They now are eligible!

This book is published in Britain by Granta, who, on their back cover blurb say: 'This is the story of Robert Grainer...' No it isn't. His name is Grainier. For a book where every word counts, this is shameful carelessness.

Give Train Dreams a go. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 16 September 2012
Each short chapter in this short book is highly memorable - probably highly memorable throughout. Railway construction worker, logger, constructor of his own dwelling on the one acre of land he owns, we follow the central figure through tragedy in his personal life, and a degree of recovery.

This will be a very alien life to most readers. The triumph of the book is that we feel: yes this how life is when it is close to the edge of survival.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon 17 September 2012
Denis Johnson has painted a portrait in words set in chapters describing the life of Robert Grainier from his arrival in Idaho aged 6 or 7 to his death in his 80's. It is as much a novella of the changes in the high-minded, often lonesome Grainier as it is about the changes in the American North-West from the early 1900s to the 1960s.

I was not surprised to find the author is also a poet as his prose and flowing lines read as such. The descriptions of the scenes and situations Grainier encounter are so visually graphic that the reader is virtually present. The storyline is of a man who sets out to spend most of his life working on railway construction, labouring, logging, uncomplaining. Several events affect him profoundly. He believes he is cursed for life by a Chinaman who escapes execution on a railway bridge. A childhood encounter with a 'boomer', a railway hobo, on his deathbed who receives his last drink from Grainier from a boot. The meeting and marriage to Gladys who are taken away with their daughter Kate, after a fire that robs him of his home as well as his loved ones. Grainier never recovers.

He takes on a variety of employment, constantly tortured by the thought that Kate may be 'out there somewhere', following a dream-like visitation from Gladys. The constant train whistles, the howling of the wolves (he joins in their chorus) almost torment him. His conversations, albeit brief, are punchy, especially when taking a man, shot by his dog, to the doctor. Vowing to stay in the place of his calamitous loss following the death under a train of the wise Kootenai Bob, Grainier sticks to his word. A man who had not caught up with or chose to ignore most of the changes in the world around him (he was impressed with the construction of an iron bridge on his travels), his life ended almost as it had begun.

A movingly fixating tale of a man who settled upon his life only to have it tragically affected. Beautifully written.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 27 February 2015
This novella which contrives to pack more into 115 pages than many a rambling, self-indulgent saga, captures the lives of Americans living on the harsh yet beautiful frontier of the north-western states in the first half of the twentieth century. The main character is Robert Grainier, a simple, semi-literate casual labourer who repairs railroad bridges and hauls forest timber. A brief period of personal happiness with an acre of land in the Moyea Valley, a wife and baby daughter, is destroyed by a ferocious forest fire. Yet, Grainger finds the dignity and resilience to rebuild a life which may seem insignificant, but forms part of the great wave of human effort to settle a continent. This is what gives an ostensibly sad book a note of optimism.

Although he spends most of his life in mourning, there are frequent touches of humour – comic scenes arise unexpectedly, as when he agrees to help a disreputable friend, who wants to assist a widow in moving house so he can lay hands on her money – , lurking superstitions about "wolf-girls" and touches of the surreal fed by the scale of the surrounding wilderness, contact with the local Kootenai Indians, and the nocturnal howling of wolves and coyotes, which Grainger begins to copy to gain a sense of release. There is a keen sense of nature, as when Grainger notices " it was full-on spring, sunny and beautiful. and the Moyea Valley showed a lot of green against the dark of the burn. The ground was healing....A mustard-tinged fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up".

The strength of the book lies in the quality of the clear and vivid prose, which struck me as poetical before I knew that the author has won prizes for his verse.

Here is a description of the aftermath of the fire, which you may appreciate if you have visited areas like the Yellowstone National Park:

“The world was gray, white, black and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire….he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all of the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away. He drove through a layer of ash deep enough, in some places, that he couldn’t make out the roadbed any better than if he’d driven through winter snows”.

I would place Denis Johnson on a par with Cormac McCarthy, but without the brutality.
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This very short, very readable and sparely written book is a veritable masterpiece. It concerns Robert Grainier who is a woodsman, living with his wife Gladys and daughter baby Kate near a small town. Robert often has to work away from home and while he is away there is a forest fire in which his wife and child perish. Robert has no idea of his own origins, remembering only that he lived near a beautiful field of corn. He has faint memories of being held and cherished as a child, but the rest is lost in the past. After the fire he carries on working on various woodland jobs and lives in the burned-out shack, which he restores. A dog appears one day who stays.

“He had searched for his wife and daughter but never found them. He had stayed at his cousins home for several weeks, not good for much sickened by his natural grief and confused by the situation. He understood that he’d lost his wife and little girl, but sometimes the idea stormed over him, positively stormed into his thoughts like an irresistible army, that Gladys and Kate had escaped the fire and that he should look for them everywhere in the world until he found them. Nightmares woke him every night: Gladys came out of the black landscape into their homesite, dressed in smoking rags and carrying their daughter, and found nothing there and stood crying in the waste.”

Yes, this is a bleak story, a harsh story, but all the same it is very beautifully told. In later years Robert learns to live with the turn of the seasons, but he is never reconciled to his work, which gradually becomes harder for him. In a hallucinatory sequence he sees his daughter, her hands turned under, her legs tucked down, scampering through his yard with jackals and wolves, and it comes to him that the wolves had taken her when they escaped the fire.

One acutely feels his helplessness. What can he do? It is all too late now.
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It was when the main character's family were burned alive about halfway through this novella I realised why this is an award-nominated book - it's damn miserable! Literary awards - as well as other creative awards like the Oscars - seem to go to books that are bleak and depressing, qualities that supposedly make them "grown up", "profound" and "wise" - or maybe I'm being cynical? From the opening scene where a Chinaman working on the railway is nearly lynching on a rumour that he was stealing building materials, to the scene when Grainier (the main character) gives a shoe full of water to a dying homeless man, one bleak scene follows another until the book's over. I also bet you any money that the winner of Best Picture this year will be "Les Miserables" - English translation "The Miserables" - because it is by far the bleakest, and yes, miserable!, of the bunch, therefore making it the most "serious" film.

I felt terrible for this poor bastard - the one light in his entire, sad life was meeting his wife and starting a family but Denis Johnson takes that away from him before thrusting Grainier back to a life of poverty and hardship, living in a shack in the woods, talking to stray dogs who inevitably either die or leave him - probably to die.

All of which would bother me if it wasn't so well written, well-paced, and well-observed. Johnson captures the time period effortlessly, making the characters seem plucked from the past and brought back to life on the page. But his descriptions of the more magical elements of the story made the book for me, from the dreams of his dead wife and her last, horrible moments alive, to believing the feral child he encounters at the end is his lost child, who'd survived somehow in the wild with the wolves, this is more than the story of a man who worked on the trains, and more of an intimate and complex character portrait of a man who embodies the frontier days he lived through, as well as man's own visceral and primitive nature.

While I thought the book had a lot to recommend it, I couldn't tell you what features of this book put it in the running for prestigious literary awards over many other books that didn't receive the same attention. That is, "Train Dreams" is a good read, but a Pulitzer Prize winner? - well it didn't win but it was nominated - I just don't see what makes it so special. It's definitely one of the good ones and well worth a look if you enjoy stories set in early 20th century America saturated with some very gloomy overtones and dowsed with gruesomely described scenes of human despair.

A lot of reviewers have commented that this is a "quick read" as if this is something to recommend in itself; it is a short book, just over 100 pages, but that doesn't mean it should be bolted down like a James Patterson novel, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac. Take your time with this book, enjoy the rich prose and vivid imagery - even if the book is a misery-fest!

And weep! For one day... we shall all die!

Awoooooooooooooooooo-oo!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 March 2015
A simple but powerful short story of a true backwoods man, Robert Grainger, born into poverty not even knowing his birth date or parents and exiting this life as he lived, in obscurity. He represents a extinct American archetype - an itinerant labourer and small cropper whose life amounts to the stoic acceptance of all befalls him. Cut down by tragedy, worn out by back-breaking work and destined to be alone with only his memories of family and the company of a hound to keep him going. He is in his own way, a hero of sorts. He draws little consolation from religion, is prey to superstition and is fearful if not suspicious of pleasure. Here is a man who just doesn’t know when he is supposed to have been beaten.

The writing style like the subject is plain at first sight, but there is a richness and complexity in the understated tone that is wholly captivating. The writer weaves his story backwards and forwards, introducing dreamlike sequences along vividly described scenes and characters so we can never quite settle. Like the old West, myth and reality co-exist, so who in the end can really say what is true.

Highly recommended.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2012
A wonderful gem of a book - it beats me why Americans seem to feel they must write 800 page tomes in order to write the 'American novel' when Denis Johnson has accomplished the same thing here in a quarter of the space. If you're a fan of Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy or any of their ilk this will be a book for you. It was short-listed for the Pulitzer last year and rightly so in my humble opinion ...
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on 21 April 2015
After "Jesus' Son", not entirely convinced, I tried this meatier novella.

The writing is accomplished and effective in a muscular, understated way. In style it reminded me somewhat of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'. The lean and matter-of-fact prose capturing the struggle of man against nature in a kind of archetypal, ancient duel. Johnson goes for the simpler times of the American mid-west, McCarthy a post-apocalyptic one. The complexities of the modern world stripped away, what remains is the physical ordeal of the ordinary man left to fend for himself. Both are masculine stories about coping men.

Though, it must be said, Johnson does offer glimpses of vulnerability, of imagination and wonder in Grainier. And curious events do seep in at the edges. Grainier not fully comprehending or processing them, just regarding them. It's effective and it takes the edge off that pervading whiff of machismo, the unarticulated suffering. Its end is surprisingly powerful and poignant.
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