Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Train Dreams employs a simple, poetic language to tell a compelling story of extreme hardships and loneliness in the American West at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This haunting novella of just over a hundred pages will leave you dumbstruck with awe. Denis Johnson has written some nine other novels, a collection of non-fiction and two plays. Of special note, considering the simple yet deeply resonant nature of his prose, Johnson has also published poetry. Train Dreams, a 2002 novella published in The Paris Review and slightly re-worked for this book edition, uses a bracing Old Testament style language to tell a story of forgotten and isolated humanity, in the manner of Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck and Carson McCullers. Simple, but rich in power.

The story is about an itinerant labourer in the American West at the beginning of the twentieth century. Robert Grainier works a variety of jobs, marries in his early thirties, has a child, and then suffers some devastating personal tragedies. He ends his life pretty much as a recluse, living in a secluded cabin, without much money, and generally avoiding people. This is a character not quite defeated by life, but fairly close. Robert presses on, despite the personal sadness of his life, reaching old age and somehow managing to keep his sanity intact.

Train Dreams also features a broad range of idiosyncratic supporting characters and uncanny events. Despite the fact that this world belongs to another time and place, to the American West of a century ago, with it own culture and peculiarities, every note in the novella rings true. Overall, it is Johnson’s poetic sensibility that makes this story so absolutely compelling. Every page allows you to forget yourself and inhabit this sad and lonely world.

In many ways, Train Dreams has close similarities to Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café, another story about misplaced and isolated people struggling to come to terms with the world they live in.
Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN:  9781847086617  RRP: $24.99