Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Audiobook

Going West (Express Train) — Thomas Hart Benton

A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.

Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.

Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.

Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.

A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.

Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams:

Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular

Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*

*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.

777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–

The Children’s Hospital–Chris Adrian — A post-apocalyptic love boat with metaphysical overtones, Adrian’s end of the world novel remains underrated and under-read.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.

C — Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson

One year after it topped book critics’ best-of 2007 lists everywhere (including ours), Denis Johnson’s Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke is finally available in a handsome trade-paperback. Picador’s edition retains the original orange and yellow cover, only now affixed with the proud blazon “National Book Award Winner.” However, that Tree of Smoke won this prestigious award no doubt ruffled a few feathers. It still remains an urgently divisive work.

Although plenty of critics and readers loved the novel, including The New York Times‘s Jim Lewis (who cautiously called it “something like a masterpiece”) and Michiko Kakutani, it has had more than its fair share of haters. Consider B.R. Myers’s downright mean review, “A Bright Shining Lie” in The Atlantic. Here, Myers displays the worst kind of vitriol. He’s the critic who feels the need not only to trumpet his hatred of the work he’s assessing, but also to lambaste the dignity, taste, and intellect of anyone who would disagree with him. Myers specifically attacks Johnson’s rhetorical style, his diction and syntax, and concludes that those idiots who would praise such inane, base, and clichéd language (idiots like me, that is) are clearly the cause of all current social and political problems and “have no right to complain about incoherent government.” Uh, sure. Myers’s baseless zealotry aside, it’s worth looking at the popular reception of Tree of Smoke, and what better place to do so than scouring Amazon reviews, right?

A cynic might say that Amazon reviews are the bottom-barrel of literary criticism, yet it’s still worth considering the almost perfectly mathematical split between 5- and 4-starred reviews of the book and 1- and 2-starred reviews (although none of the negative reviews I read on Amazon suggested that praising Johnson’s novel disenfranchised one from political opinions). Put simply, most people tend to either hate or love Tree of Smoke, which, I believe, is a sign of great art. And, were I inclined to inflate my rhetoric to a grandiose level like Myers, I might here wax philosophical about opinion, perspective, history, and the value of great art to ignite debate and discussion within the marketplace of ideas. However, I don’t think a book review is necessarily the best venue to make grand sweeping statements. At best, such writing presents a shallow or hollow endorsement of a collective truth (e.g. “Everyone assesses literature from their own perspective and therefore everyone values books differently”); at worst–in the case of Myers’s grotesque review–we get a pompous, overblown, self-important declaration (here, praising Tree of Smoke = losing the ability to authoritatively comment on society or politics) that can only be supported within the limited rhetorical bounds created the sophist has constructed (i.e. Myers’s review). But I’ve made a long digression, and, worse, I’ve failed to really discuss the book at all.

My initial review of Tree of Smoke last year was really a review of Will Patton’s masterful audio-recording of the novel (I was reading Ulysses for graduate school at the time and simply did not have the time to read both). I loved the experience; Patton did a great job, and I found myself wholly addicted to the narrative. When the advance copy of Tree showed up in the mail earlier this week, I immediately re-read the coda of the book in a single sitting. I would say the measure of a great narrative is not its core, its climax, or its beginning, but how well the conclusion is able to deliver the promises established throughout the book. Tree of Smoke delivers, and its ending continues to haunt the reader well after the book has been set aside. Readers like Myers may not get the payoff–he claims that “Johnson’s failure to understand [his character’s] faith is such that when he uses it to end the novel on an uplifting note, the reader feels nothing.” However, I hardly think that a watery Hallmark-word like “uplifting” properly connotes the weight, pathos, and sheer pain that Johnson conveys and addresses at the end of the book (Myers’s shallow diagnosis leads me to believe he merely skimmed the novel). Ethics of literary criticism aside, the real triumph of Tree of Smoke is simply that Johnson manages to comment in a new way on a subject that, by 2007, had been done to death. Who knew that we needed another story about the Vietnam War? Denis Johnson, apparently. Read the book for yourself. Very highly recommended.

Tree of Smoke is available in paperback from Picador on 2 September, 2008.

Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson

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I finished Denis Johnson’s sprawling Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke the same weekend that I finished James Joyce’s Ulysses. I managed to do this thanks to BBC America’s fantastic audio book version of Tree of Smoke, read by Will Patton–there’s simply no other way I would’ve managed to read both books. After finishing Tree of Smoke, that special depression reserved for only the best of books set in (you know that feeling–where the book you looked forward to every day is now over, and you feel a little sad and want more). I immediately started listening to it again (after I finished Ulysses I simply felt exhausted–Molly Bloom’s infamous monologue was fantastic (and sexy!), and I read it in one sitting, but still…the book inspires a special fatigue. More on all of this in a future post. I only bring the two up together as they are both very long books I finished this weekend; without pretense or shame, I attest that I enjoyed Johnson’s book over Joyce’s).

I plan to buy and reread (not sure if reread is the right verb) Tree of Smoke as soon as soon as it comes out in paperback. For now, here’s a very brief review: go buy this book and read it immediately. If you don’t have time to read it, get the 18-disc, 24 hour audiobook. Will Patton’s reading is astounding. He manages to meet and express the expansive range of voices and viewpoints in Johnson’s novel–newbie CIA spooks, double agents, overwhelmed relief workers, nihilist GIs, zealous field operatives, and more–in a way that brings the appropriate depth and personality to each character without ever being obtrusive or obnoxious (as can sometimes happen with audiobooks). Patton’s reading is on par with the best audiobook readings I’ve ever heard, and those of you who frequently listen to audiobooks know the difference this can make. He seems to fully appreciate the scope and magnitude of Johnson’s piece on Vietnam (sidenote: Patton played a bit-part in the underrated and overlooked 1999 film adaptation of Johnson’s novel-in-stories collection, Jesus’ Son).

But I’m not really doing justice to Johnson’s novel here. To call it a Vietnam war novel is like calling Prince a simple R&B artist–a facile description that doesn’t capture the subject. To be sure, it is a Vietnam war novel, but one that self-consciously riffs off of both The Ugly American and The Quiet American–with shades of Apocalypse Now to boot. At the same time, Johnson deftly injects mythology and philosophy directly into his character’s voices, into their conversations and letters, into the books they read and the papers they write, without ever once clumsily forcing a theme or motif. Unlike lesser writers, Johnson never slaps the reader in the face with all his clever ideas. Instead, all his clever ideas–meditations on colonialism, war, the minotaur myth, self-sacrifice, religion, data and analysis, love and betrayal–are part of an enthralling plot propelled by the most realistic dialog I’ve heard in a long, long time. If a better book is published in 2007, please let me know. Highly highly highly recommended.