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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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TOP 100 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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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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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 5 January 2013
I bought this after reading many reviews and several mentions for this book in end of year lists. I was not disappointed.

Put simply, this book marks one of the great achievements in modern literature. Epic, haunting, crafted in such a way that despite its short length, it will stay with you forever. I don't want to give too much away and I feel I'd probably just be repeating other reviewers here but you have to own this book. It's an almost perfect work of fiction.
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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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on 19 January 2013
I enjoyed the book but found it rather short and consequently a little superficial. I thought the storyline was good but would have liked the author to have spent a lot longer over each piece giving us more detail so that we really got to know the characters and what was driving them. I suppose this is one of the problems of downloading books that I never look at the length of the book.
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VINE VOICEon 7 December 2012
When I read a Denis Johnson book I can't help but feel that it is a Cohen brothers movie in waiting. Nobody Move from 2009 was superb in its telling of the adventures of Jimmy Luntz in the American west. That time the hero, if you can call him such, finds himself amongst petty thieves and gamblers, and weaves in and out of small town bars and motels. Johnson's power of description is stunning, and is used to great effect in the 200 or so pages he takes to tell his tale.

And it is the same with his latest work, Train Dreams, which is even shorter at 116 pages - you might call it a novella but I'm never quite sure where to draw that particular line. It begins in 1917 with its subject, Robert Grainier, finding work where he can in the shadow of the railroad building programme going on at that time. He takes part in some dark deeds, before finding short but sweet happiness with a young wife and new baby girl. However, his domestic haven does not last long, and the power of the story is in its recounting of how he copes with the ensuing tragedy, and the fundamental effect it has on the rest of his life.

He continues to be drawn to the spot in the forest valley where he made his former home, and ekes out a lonely and desolate existence throughout the changing seasons. Johnson is dealing with powerful emotions, and elemental surroundings, which he describes with such colour and precision it is startling. This is one of those epic books that stays with you long after the pages have been turned. It's a one sitting American treasure that deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 February 2015
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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on 24 April 2013
This really a long short story and could easily be read in a day or two.

It tells the story of a day laborer in the late 19th Century, and his life around the impact of the railways connecting the continent in the early part of the 20th Century. There is definitely a sense that the main star is a hermit in frontier country.

If you're a fan of American fiction this is highly recommended. Some though might be put off by the price, as the book is only about 100 pages.
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