Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

15 thoughts on “Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Novella”

  1. Good review. Makes me want to hop in my truck and drive 70 miles to the nearest bookstore that might have a copy. Meanwhile, I’ll search the local library database for some of his other works, since he doesn’t seem to be a one work author.


      1. Of course we do. That’s why we read your works. Where is the cross-reference, indexing, diagrams and illustrations. Just kidding.
        I knew I would like him from the ‘Typed notes’ blog previously. The cover is so familiar looking as if I saw it on a library table somewhere. Is it a Thomas Hart Benton?


          1. Your Search ~ revealed a lot of Denis Johnson over the years, including some good poetry. I wonder if the cover was on the hard cover book, also. For some arcane reason my eyes will stop on a book in a store, etc., of an author unknown to me, and later along comes information that I should have read that book.


    1. Josh The library had Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. There were some audiobooks if I wanted to travel to those branches to check them out. They let one return them at the local branch ,but won’t do an interlibrary loan with electronic media. Public libraries have such an arcane operant that I would not be surprised if they don’t outmode themselves like the national book sellers did with dividing in store and available via internet ordering. And both at a time when the traffic towards reading and literacy produces logjams in the institutions. [I know, mixed metaphor.]

      Jesus’ Son is a thin volume, so I’ll be able to give it a good shade tree reading. From perusing the jacket blurbs, Tree of Smoke is a big thick book about a time and personalities that I would rather not put my psyche through again. I’ll dip into it at random pages to see if I should read it anyway. Flannery O’Connors’ descriptions of the surreal personas of rural anywhere disturb me, but she always has a kernel of truth to reveal that justifies the discomfort. Not that the truth is pretty.

      I’ll try for Train Dreams since it is set in frontier times, border lands, border lines. That’s why I like living near the water. All those gradations between solid and liquid and the creatures human and animal that thrive therein. Which is why I like historical fiction set in the dawning of the machine age, since that was the greatest change humankind has gone through. The invention of mechanical power. To me rocket ships taking humans into space was the climax and final chapter of the machine age. The last great Victorian monstrous edifice. Frankenstein triumphant, I’ll be dead and gone and flew the coop when the recent dawning of the electronic age has that perspective. Hallelujah.


    2. Josh I started reading ‘Jesus’ Son’ last night cocooned in bed with the a.c. going full blast so that it would feel like winter to match the rain falling outside. It was too warm to just open the windows and let the sounds come in. I got about halfway through the volume before the sandman came calling. I was entertained and amused by his stories. Each one just long enough to finish before my attention span monkey swung to a different limb. Like any good author he has a good way with words. The narrator exists as a real person rather than a recording from a camera and it seems as if I know him, maybe from a bar, or when I lived in Georgia, one of those beach rednecks that would come up from Florida and keep us entertained with stories about people they knew. Denis’ narrator has a quiet matter-of-fact humor that would make me laugh out loud. He told these tales without being sardonic. I never had the feeling that he was a cruel person. The way he would relate the most surreal occurrences as if they were an every day discussion of what he had for breakfast kept me reading for more. The flatness of the landscape of Iowa took part in the stories, too. When I put the book down, he was living in Chicago and been thrown out of an abortion clinic.


  2. His prose style is quite engaging, even in the brief excerpts here. Thanks very much for your insightful review.


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