I picked up Train Dreams by Denis Johnson at the local Friends of the Library sale, looking for short readable books. Lately, I have been struggling to enjoy longer tomes for some reason. Needing some bedtime reading I started it this week.
It turned out to be evocative and haunting portrait of the Rocky Mountain west in the early 20th century. An example of why novellas can be such a joy to read when done right. In the course of a very well done review in the Sunday Book Review, Anthony Doerr offers a nice plot summation:
The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.
It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.
Later in the review, I think Doerr is right when he credits “persuasive” atmosphere with playing a big part in the power of this novella. It reads like a memoir/travelogue, a true piece of history, despite its fiction and even magical realism aspects.
Doerr also hits on another aspect that is so effective:
The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.
It is at once unsettling and yet calming or perhaps perfectly balanced between the two. Which is what life in that time and place, and perhaps all times and places, was like.
Train Dreams was just what I needed this week, a short read that captures your imagination and allows you to enter another world for a while. I’ll give Publishers Weekly the last word:
An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson.