Following on the heels of Blueprints of the Afterlife and Swamplandia!, the next book chosen by my college alumni nostalgic English majors book group was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. While it’s still unclear whether I’ll be able to attend the discussion this weekend, I did read the book (it’s literally 116 pages long, I had no excuse) and am ready to record my thoughts.
Astoundingly, despite its short length and relatively simple prose, TD created such a powerful atmosphere that I found myself frequently rereading sentences, paragraphs, or even whole pages trying to figure out how Johnson did it. The story centers around Robert Grainier, who works building railroads, clearing forests, and other day labor in early 20th-century Idaho and Washington. His is not necessarily a story with a cohesive plot and defined events; rather, Johnson provides a series of random snippets from Grainier’s life. They don’t follow a set chronology or theme, but serve to invoke an overall sense of the everchanging American West so skillfully that—again—I couldn’t even tell how it was being done.
Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure.
See? And that is just one sentence (albeit a crazy long one). A lifelong Westerner myself (who pseudo-nostalgically loved the many TD references to Spokane), I felt so strongly that this was my country. Through some crazy genius means, Denis Johnson got me to identify so completely with this Robert Grainier that I felt like I was living vicariously through him.
Seriously. If you have any interest in literary or historical fiction, read this book. Highest recommendations. If it means something to you, I told my friend that it reminded me a lot of Willa Cather. However, it’s been about three years since I read any Cather, so don’t sue me if that’s totally wrong. (Just read it.)
And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.