Peter's Reviews > Train Dreams

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
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Oct 16, 11


My teaching schedule is a tad hellish right now, and it's a miracle that I was able to read anything for pleasure. But somehow I snuck something in. Something small. And I enjoyed this little book. It wasn't mind-bending, life-sustaining, or hyphen-inducing in any grand way, but it was notable for its somehow pleasurable melancholy tone and its powerful compression of a single man's life.

While at times I felt distant from Mr. Robert Grainier, bridge-builder/homesteader/tree-feller/hermit (Okay I lied about the hyphens), when the book ended on page 116, I felt as if I knew pretty much everything I wanted to know about the guy. There were times I wish Johnson had allowed us more access to his stoic hero's vulnerabilities, much in the same way I often wish Hemingway's protagonists would feel things once in awhile. But there was much to read into Grainier's life as it passed by the reader like one of the many trains mentioned throughout, slowly disappearing around a bend, only to reappear later, much the same, still puffing away. Robert Grainier builds cabins, drives horse carts, takes a ride in one of the first airplanes ever, walks the remains of a great fire, mourns the death of loved ones, and nearly kills a man for no reason early in his journey. He even encounters the rare mythical creature in the dead of night.

Johnson seems to be after some kind of bootstrap-pulling American everyman from another era, one who has a hard time changing along with his country as great hunks of time pass by. Instead, Grainier remains almost pathologically loyal to his idea of home and to the memory of the few good things he once had. And there is a feeling here of watching a life that might not usually be examined. One of a man who chose to engage only as much as he needed to with his time and place. The kind of person everyone might see on the fringes of their town, but never stop to think about. Which is a pity, Johnson seems to say, since there are a few things he might be able to teach us.

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