Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reading Rainbow: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Having read and loved the classic short story collection Jesus' Son and the collection of reportage Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond only to be left puzzled as to why Tree of Smoke was awarded the 2007 National Book Award upon finishing that laborious and unrewarding tome, I had no idea what to expect with Train Dreams, a novella that first appeared in print in The Paris Review in 2002 only to not get a proper hardcover release until 2011 when Farrar, Straus and Giroux went to press with it.

Cover art by my possible kinfolk, Thomas Hart Benton
An exceptionally quick and easy read, Train Dreams bore none of the turgidity present in Tree of Smoke, a notable feat given the fact that much of Robert Grainier's life story is told with efficacy and brevity in a scant 116 pages. The book dreamily jumps around episodically through Grainier's life, a day laborer who lives out most of his life in the panhandle of Idaho (some takes place in nearby Washington, as well) as the Pacific Northwest begins its transition from the wild frontier it begins the first half of the Twentieth Century as. Train Dreams is not beholden to a linear narrative. There is a certain logic to it all, of course, and the stories that pertain to his wife and daughter are mostly beholden to a least a loose sense of linear chronology, but Johnson's novella follows a freer path.

The story of Robert Grainier  is an interesting one. From his murky beginnings to his relatively brief marriage to his later hermitic life, Grainier's life cast against the raw, wild backdrop of a Pacific Northwest still heavily influenced by the Kootenai's mystical roots that still had hold in the area is fascinating. The hard life he leads, heavily at the mercy of the harsh climes and geography of the region, and the resultant spartan lifestyle the land mandates is perfectly rendered in the lean, direct prose through which his tale is told. While there are tragic elements to Grainier's story, Johnson manages to avoid getting bogged down in tragedy, as in this environment these otherwise tragic events are simply a fact of life and treated as such. Just as everything in Grainier's life had utility, Johnson wastes few words in recounting his life, and its effectiveness without approaching being affected is astonishing.

For those wondering where this week's Wordy Old Men on Downton Abbey is, we hope to have that up tomorrow. There have been computer issues that have held it up. As for yesterday's contentlessness, I apologize. I've come down with something, and I passed out really early Monday night. I wish I were dead right now.

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