Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

traindreamsIn 2012, the Pulitzer Prize board declined to award a prize in fiction as the members of the board simply could not reach a majority vote. Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (originally published in a slightly different form by The Paris Review in 2002) was one of the nominees.

Robert Grainier is a day laborer – a logger, a hauler – born in 1886, dead in 1968. His origins are not known and he is essentially an orphan. Some claim that he spoke French as a child, and his parents may have been Canadian. But Grainier is raised in the U.S., and he is part of the epic changes the country goes through. As a young man, his eyes fall upon forests that “white” men and women have barely ventured into. Later on, in the 1950s, he almost catches a glimpse of Elvis Presley on his touring train. However, Grainier lives on the periphery. He leads an anonymous life and he will not be remembered after his death. He comes, he sees, and then returns to non-existence without leaving a lasting imprint on the world.

Quietly the novel describes a simple and intriguing life. Grainier can be described as a decent man, yet he tries to kill an alleged storeroom thief, a “Chinaman” who Grainier thinks puts a curse on him. His wife and young daughter bring happiness, but life is as fragile as the flickering light of a candle. Packs of wolves fill the night with their howls, and nature and local legends permeate his existence. And the ancient tales of the Bible are also part of Grainier’s world view. So when an all-consuming fire sweeps through the valley where Grainier lives he instantly makes biblical connections: “He saw no sign of their Bible, either. If the Lord had failed to protect even the book of his own Word, this proved to Grainier that here had come a fire stronger than God.”

Yes, Grainier inhabits an untamed wilderness far removed from the culture the settlers bring with them. And this meeting between nature and culture gives rise to something new. Even though men like Grainier were born, lived, and died without leaving much behind, they all helped create something that was (in a way) larger than them and that survives to this day: the legend of the American pioneer.

In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson breathes new life into this legend, and it’s easy to understand why this book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

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One Response to “Train Dreams by Denis Johnson”

  1. Jackie Cangro Says:

    Thank you for posting this terrific review. I am going to add this to my reading list.

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