Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

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.

Books I’m Looking Forward To

UPDATE: I forgot one!

A Box of Birds – Charles Fernyhough

A thriller set in the world of brain research investigating the clash between materialism and Freudian therapy, Fernyhough looks to investigate the kinds of explanation that can work in fiction, and in considerations of what it means to be human. On the basis of this pitch I supported the book on Unbound. I want to see how it works,


I’ll be posting a review of John Banville’s Ancient Light in the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I would post a selection of new books I’m looking forward to in the coming months, some of which have landed on my doormat recently. This is a very short non-exhaustive list which rather favours big names. Feel free to suggest others!

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

The new novel by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy returns to World War One and roughly meshes with the events of Life Class which I was a little disappointed by. Word is that this one is very dark and very good indeed.



NW – Zadie Smith

After Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Hawthorn and Child another novel of London and its inhabitants which will be very different but, I hope, equally brilliant.





The City’s Son – Tom Pollock

Many years ago I went to the pub with Tom Pollock. I’m pretty sure he bought a round, so that’s in his favour. He also mentioned wanting to write. This very well previewed fantasy/YA novel set in a world of ‘monsters and miralces’ is one of the books I really wish I’d got hold of before release.


Rook – Jane Rusbridge

‘Look at the stars, Rook. Tell me what you know.’
Set in the village of Bosham on the Sussex coast, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel tackles buried secrets, history, memory, and the meaning of home.



Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

I simply adore Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great individuals of the Twentieth Century. Soldier, traveller, linguist, and writer, this man was incredible. Amongst his wonderful books are the chronicles of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as was) in the Thirties, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The third and final installment of that trilogy is being put together by Cooper after this book. I am very excited. See also his books about Greece, where he lived for much of his life: Mani, Roumeli, and a collection titled Words of Mercury. I’m saying nothing…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

If you haven’t read any Denis Johnson then you simply must. Go and get Tree of Smoke. You’ll thank me. This  short novel of the American West is one of the books that was in the running for the unawarded Pulitzer Prize.



Merivel – Rose Tremain

Following on from Tremain’s 1989 Restoration, Merivel returns to the eponymous courtier and physician in middle age and finds him in a more reflective, but ever mirthful mood. As he journeys across Europe everything seems to go wrong except, I hope, Tremain’s writing.