Sometimes a literary novel can capture every nuance and feeling of a character with such little effort it is breathtaking. The best writers can transport a reader from cosy sofa to the panic of forest fires with the simplest of words and leave the audience gasping. An author can use the right pacing and drama to captivate and sweep somebody off their feet. Denis Johnson manages to do all this and more in a mere 116 pages. His novella – Train Dreams – is such an accomplished piece of fiction and it proves that the quantity of words mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dream-like business he’d ever witnessed waking – the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from the beyond valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world”
Robert Grainier, Johnson’s central character, commences on an emotional journey from page one and it never let’s up. Johnson will continuously tug at your soul as Grainier depicts the moments of his life. For me, Train Dreams is about the simplicity and beauty of life and this is magnified by Johnson’s writing. The author balances simple staccato sentences with sprawling lyrical paragraphs with such a subtlety that it is hard to ignore the elegance of his prose. Despite much of the darkness in the book, there is the odd dose of humour to help ease the pain.
“I don’t get my gears turning smooth till it’s over a hundred. I worked on a peak outside Bisbee, Arizona, where we were only eleven or twelve miles from the sun. It was a hundred and sixteen degrees on the thermometer, and every degree was a foot long. And that was in the shade. And there wasn’t no shade.”
Grainier wants nothing more than his slice of life – he is not a greedy man, he doesn’t drink and he is hard working. His heart is broken early on in the story as his wife and baby daughter die in a forest fire. From here he must solve the answers to his existence and find a niche in which he fits.
Much of the plot is upsetting in one way or another. As the novel is set in the late 19th century and early 20th many actions by the supporting cast are questionable and taboo, thus setting true reader on edge with a sense of underlying tension. This lasts throughout as one never knows what awaits Grainier in his life. All of this is backdropped by a radically changing America which goes to heighten the confusion of Grainier. Johnson describes the surroundings and changing times with a deftness that is envy inducing to even a non writer.
“The World was gray, white, black and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning and yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire.”
The most appealing aspect of Train Dreams is the dreamlike quality of the tale. Oftentimes Johnson steps into the realms of magical realism with expert use. There are moments later in the novella where the situation becomes gripping through its surrealism and wonder. Without these instances Train Dreams would be a lesser book, though still a work of art.
I stated on Twitter that I would find it hard to encapsulate my feelings for this book in my own words. After all, how do I describe something so utterly wonderful without my own skill for lilting prose? Suffice to say that Train Dreams is a masterpiece and will stand the test of time.
“Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds. He’d never seen so grand a prospect.”
Published by Granta. This book was purchased and read on Kindle.