Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
At once gruff and tender, rich and spare
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is, in many ways, a quiet novel, which might not be expected from the author of Jesus’ Son. Train Dreams boasts none of the excesses of that collection’s drug-addled escapades, but that’s not to say Train doesn’t traffic in extremes. The novel tells the life story of Robert Grainier, a taciturn, self-reliant man making a life in far-northern Idaho in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Grainier, orphaned, knows of his past only that he arrived “from somewhere” on a train, and he becomes as much a part of rough, underpopulated terrain, as if it were his native home. He purchases an acre of land on the banks above the Moyea River, builds a cabin there, and rebuilds it after a devastating fire. He works as a logger in Washington, and for the railroad high on a trestle bridge. He falls in love and loses love, howls like a wolf, and never takes a sip of alcohol. This is a novel (novella, really – the audiobook is just over two hours long) in which the author’s language – its cadence, diction, and tone – so clearly mirrors the character it describes that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. The language is at once gruff and tender, rich and spare, like a magnificent sunset spreading out over a barren landscape. Expertly read by Jim Patten, Train Dreams is a story as big as the American West and as intimate as one man’s life.