Short and Sweet: Train Dreams

Train_DreamsAFJ has been bugging me to read this one for a while. He purchased it for my birthday and I think this is a great gift.  Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a (short) novella set in the Panhandle region of northern Idaho during the 1930s. It is almost minimalist as dialogue and narration is cut down to a minimum, yet there is one element that keeps it from being strictly minimal. At a certain point, magic realism seems to interrupt the narrative and I had mixed feelings about this. It seemed to jar with what had come before. This feeling might come from expectation that Johnson is following a Hemingway/Steinbeck line in the novel. It deals with a working class character in a poor area. There is death, sorrow, trains, and a loner protagonist. But there is also magic and wonder. I suppose this is more my fault than Johnson’s but I note it nonetheless.

The novella centres on Robert Grainier, a jack-of-all-trades who builds bridges, works in lumber camps, homesteads, and runs a delivery business. His life stretches across the early and middle portion of the 20th century although most of the narrative focuses on the 1930s. Grainier is a loner, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. After the tragic death of his wife and child, Grainier returns to his plot of land and rebuilds his life on his own. He is a quiet and stoic figure. There is a rich cast of itinerant workers that Grainier interacts with including the humorous scene when Eddie tries to woo the widow Claire who seems more interested in Robert himself.

Trains are a constant thread throughout the novella (as the title suggests). Grainier works on their tracks, hears them outside his house, and travels on them to get around the Panhandle region.  I really liked this use of trains probably because after doing a fair bit of historical research on Canadian railways I feel like we as a culture lost something when we replaced the train with the automobile as our preferred mode of transit.

Johnson beautifully paints the Panhandle region and its strange beauty. A number of years ago I bicycled along the Yakima River and I had very vivid recollections of that experience reading this novella. Train Dreams evokes a lost way of life, one where humans lived more closely with the land and their horizon of travels was much more limited. I would not say this novella is nostalgic even if it made me feel that way. The introduction of tall tales and superstition enriched the narrative even if I did not love the ending (sorry J).

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in 1930s stories or those looking for a good short read.

Johnson, Denis. Train Dreams. 2002. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011. Print.

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