How Denis Johnson does what he does is beyond me. Train Dreams is a 116 page long masterpiece of remarkable richness that documents the harsh and tragic life of Robert Grainier amidst the disorientating transformation of the American West he helped tame as a bridge builder and logger for the railways. As is so often the way with Johnson, the weight behind each sentence is remarkable, even as each line appears innocuous; and this brooding power underlines the most human of experiences whilst allowing the passages where the visionary breaks through to take one’s breath away: the final passage is simply stunning and echoes back through the pages.
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt of the life of a Chinese laborer caught or anyway accused of, stealing from the stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Train Dreams opens with a founding event, the attempted murder of an immigrant worker by a gang of bridge workers, Grainier amongst them, their chosen method being to fling the man from the top of a half-constructed span. The curse Grainier believes the Chinese labourer to have put on him hangs above his head for the rest of the book, as his wife and young child are killed in a voracious wildfire, and he sets out to reconstruct his life in a lonely cabin.
In the dark he felt his daughter’s eyes turned on him like a cornered brute’s. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
What I found most striking was the manner in which the apparently human – the rational, organised, powerful – was laid over the wild, the animal, and the deadly, rather than supplanting it. Few characters die naturally in Train Dreams and Grainier’s life spans that moment when the West still resisted the progress of a humanity Johnson questions: for it’s not only the landscape which is only apparently humanised through the arrival of the railways, but humans themselves. The interpenetration of the domestic and the wild, and the caprice of the apparently domesticated, is symbolised by the small red dog Grainier shares his cabin with, and who frequently disappears to run with the wolves.
This contrast between the rational and the animal which together make up the human and the world we attempt to separate ourselves from is underlined by Johnson’s measured prose. Prose with the power to suddenly break out into a fleet-footed wildness which lurks beneath every sentence. Train Dreams is as much about the loss of that moment as it is its analysis. The railroad frames Grainier’s life and enters his dreams, inflecting their childhood recollections, but something clings on beneath them.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection Battleborn also investigates the myth of the American West in its own way and shares the alternating tenderness and harshness of landscape and the kind of person one has to be to survive in it. Neither book allows the romantic to creep in, but that is not, of course, the same thing as excluding sentiment, of which there is plenty in both. Where Johnson excels in is the seemingly effortless and astonishingly compressed richness of this short novel.To be honest, I don’t know what else to say about Train Dreams other than that you should read it.
Train Dreams is released on 6th September by Granta.
My thanks to Granta for providing this review copy.