Friday, September 21, 2012

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

This was one of the three books nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the year the committee did not award the prize to any one of the three. Denis Johnson had already won a National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed.

Johnson has published four books of poetry, nine novels, and what sounds like a memoir (Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond). Train Dreams is a novella (about 115 pages in a small-format hardback) and originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002. Perhaps that's why the Pulitzer committee rejected it: Not brand new. . . and not very long.

It begins, "In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle." The laborer escapes and we follow the life of Robert in Idaho until 1935.

One of the marvels of the book, I think, is how much Johnson does in such a short space. We learn about Robert, his wife, the effects of a massive forest fire, life in early 20th century Idaho, logging, Kootenai Indians, barnstorming airplanes, and more. It's tempting to quote and quote and quote, but I'll just give one more sample: "...Grainier lives in the cabin, even through the winters. By most Januaries, when the snow had deepened, the valley seemed stopped with a perpetual silence, but as a matter of fact it was often filled with the rumble of trains and the choirs of distant wolves and the nearer mad jibbering of coyotes. Also, his own howling, as he'd taken it up as a kind of sport."

In one way, Train Dreams contradicts conventional publishing. There is no "plot" in the sense of a character who wants something, overcomes a series of challenges, and either obtains or fails to obtain what he wants. The book could almost be the biography of Robert Grainier except that his life is, on the evidence of the book, too unimportant to record.

Yet by the time you close the novel, you've experienced an extraordinary life. And you've watched the West's slow despoiliation. All in 115 pages.

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