In my own internal reference library, the brilliance of Denis Johnson’s minimalism is almost without compare. He fashions his most arresting prose from moments of tough, heartbreaking realism. In TRAIN DREAMS, Johnson depicts the hard-fought life of Robert Grainier, a gentle-natured day laborer in the Great Northwest during the first half of the twentieth century. This stunning epic novella brims with striking and spontaneous outbursts of beauty.
“[C]lusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign” soon after a cataclysmic forest fire ravaged the land (and Grainier’s family). From spruces that lumberjacks dub “widowmakers,” bridge builders erect breathtaking structures, “knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.” One can open to any page in this short masterpiece and find a sudden lyrical celebration of grandeur or sublimity—shimmering moments in an otherwise hardscrabble world.
As the title suggests, TRAIN DREAMS is a lamentation of a lost age, but at times it also feels like a dreamscape, embracing superstition and the supernatural. Grainier awakening to an apparition of his dead wife, for example, makes hair stand on end to the same degree as his once-in-a-lifetime ride on a biplane. Furthermore, Johnson’s third-person narrator moves non-linearly with ease: forward and backward through Grainier’s life; in and out of moments that highlight specific historical contexts; and, most interestingly to me, to the edges of Grainier’s story, where precious pages are spent on peripheral, albeit colorful, characters. One of my favorites is an old cobbler who spits a wad of chewing tobacco into his tub of beeswax, and then, with the air of a performer, finger-stirs the mash in front of young Grainier to dissuade him from ever again stealing globs that the child sucked like candy.
If it sounds like I’m describing a back-pocket book in which everything is possible, that’s my intention, as such a description not only underscores the early twentieth century’s rapid technological transformation, but is also an apt nod to what I consider the greatest role of literature: to spark in readers an innate and primal sense of wonderment. As I read, I find myself mourning the loss of a harder, older way of life, while doubting I’d have had the grit to endure it. I lament the devastation of forests, while awing at trains crossing bridges that traverse vast openings in the earth. I’m saddened by the tragic loss of Grainier’s family and the slow deterioration of his work-abused body, while also marveling at the resilient, somber, and curious nature of life.
Daniel Magariel’s is the author of ONE OF THE BOYS.