While reading Train Dreams I felt like I was following the high-flown language and archetypal plot of an ancient epic poem. Robert Grainier, the novella’s hero, comes from a mysterious past and goes through life with minimal contact with his fellows, but what he does experience achieves a mythic dimension. The plain, unadorned prose that author Denis Johnson uses serves the story perfectly and never gets in the way of the stunning events. This slim volume packs a disproportionate weight – I’m left to consider, what might come next from this unpredictable and impossibly effective author.
Robert Grainer thinks he was born around 1886 – it might have been Canada, but he’s heard that it could also have been Utah. He works in his twenties and thirties as a local laborer in the Idaho panhandle and discovers he likes working on the bridges that allow the railroads to soar over ravines. These sketchy details and lack of clear roots sets the stage for the supernatural, but before we encounter that, we experience Robert’s tragedy: he loses his wife of a few years, and their infant daughter, to a forest fire while he is away on a job.
He is known around his hamlet as a lonely, tragic figure, and he lives a solitary life, but isn’t quite a hermit. Even in infirm old age, however, he continues to spend summer and fall at the remote cabin he built so many years before in the aftermath of his wife’s death; he does it for a secret reason, a reason he knows he can’t tell anyone.
In a way only Denis Johnson can manage, the stuff of legend is rendered here on the page. He baffles me with his strength in a few short phrases, and the epic life he can render in a short novella reads like the stuff of classic poetry. Every experience with Denis Johnson is an uncanny, memorable one. The man never disappoints, and can never be predicted.