Book review: ‘Train Dreams’
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 116 pp., $18
It’s a curious thing about Denis Johnson: For a writer I admire as much as (if not more than) any of his contemporaries, his books rarely come without faults. This may be most true of his Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke,” which never quite coalesces into something more than a pastiche, despite having won a 2007 National Book Award. Yet it also marks earlier novels, including the often brilliant “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” an investigation of God as “the chief conspirator” that ultimately loses track of its internal logic, and “The Stars at Noon,” which, taking place in 1980s Nicaragua, veers in and out of a beautiful derangement.
Of his 16 books, only four — the novels “Angels” and “Already Dead,” “Seek,” which gathers his nonfiction, and the story collection “Jesus’ Son” — stand out as essentially unflawed. But what a quartet, especially “Seek” and “Jesus’ Son”: the first for radically reframing the art of literary journalism, the second for being, to put it plainly, one of the masterpieces of American fiction in the last 20 years.
To this list we can add “Train Dreams,” a novella originally published in the Paris Review in 2002 and available for the first time in book form. The story of a day laborer named Robert Grainer, it unfolds during the early part of the last century, and if it’s not quite on the level of “Seek” or “Jesus’ Son” (but really, what is?), it offers a spare, stoic miniature of a particular sort of American life. Set in the rural West — Idaho and Washington state, mostly, although "[i]n his time [Grainer] 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” — “Train Dreams” is a portrait of containment, of compression and restraint.
Grainer lives, works and suffers tragedy; he loses his wife and baby daughter and must find a way to go on. He watches the world grow up around him, yet manages to keep his distance and continue living as he knows. Always, there are trains, from the one that brings him to Idaho as a boy to those he dreams about at night and from which the novella draws its name. “Grainer had … once seen a wonder horse,” Johnson tells us, “and he’d flown in the air in a biplane in 1927. He’d 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.”
On the one hand, what Johnson is evoking is the sweep of time, of history, as seen through an archetypal life. Grainer is an ideal filter for such an effort: born in one century, living mostly in another, he becomes a three-dimensional metaphor for the industrialization of the country, the slow passage from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul. And yet, as he generally does, Johnson has something more elusive in mind also, something more fundamental and intense.
For Grainer, this emerges through those train dreams, which begin to come to him after he builds a new cabin on the exact site, just outside Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where a forest fire took his family. After one such dream, the spirit of his wife, Gladys, visits; she recalls for him the tragic moments of the fire. “Gladys didn’t speak,” Johnson writes, “but she broadcast what she was feeling: She mourned for her daughter, whom she couldn’t find. Without her baby, she couldn’t go to sleep in Jesus or rest in Abraham’s bosom. Her daughter hadn’t come across among the spirits, but lingered here in the world of life, a child alone in the burning forest. But the forest isn’t burning, he told her. But Gladys couldn’t hear.”
Here, Johnson gets at the key issue of his writing: the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can’t decipher what it means. For Grainer, the appearance of Gladys is a trigger; it leads to the realization that his daughter has survived the fire, if not exactly in human form. There are implications to that, of course, but they’re less supernatural than mythic, a blurring of boundaries.
As for what this says about the country Grainer represents, perhaps it’s that we are bound, at the deepest level, by something elemental, something that eludes reason, or even language but tells a story just the same. Such a story exists between terror and transcendence, between the wild and the tame. “I’m living in the Bible’s world right now,” Johnson observes in “Seek,” reporting from Somalia, “the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, a world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too.”
That’s the world of “Train Dreams” also, although the novella is more of an elegy. Johnson makes this clear in the final pages, which recall a carny act Grainer witnesses, featuring a wolf-boy. The creature is clearly a fake, and yet there’s some tendril of connection that blurs those lines again, making him stand in for that lost world.
“He laid his head back,” Johnson writes, “until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a road that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and of the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moan-music of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.”