KFed's Reviews > Train Dreams

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
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May 18, 12

bookshelves: 2012
Read from May 13 to 17, 2012

The life of Robert Grainier, in sum:

Grainier himself lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s. In his time he'd traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he'd never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana. He'd had one lover -- his wife, Gladys -- owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He'd never been drunk. He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He'd ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once on an aircraft. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him.


This passage, taken from late in the novel, is as much the summary of a man as of the crevice of history we think of as American modernity. I take it to be a prime example of what reviewers have in mind when likening this novella to a portrait-in-miniature. Maybe. But that has a way of overlooking, or at least not pointing out some of Johnson's more peculiar achievements here.

I enjoyed, for example, that this was a story of living alone in the woods that wasn't a story about transcendentalism or self-reliance. I liked that it was a story about the modernization of technology that wasn't about 'the modernization of technology.' I liked that it was a story about ethnicity that wasn't about ethnicity. I liked that it was a story of myth, but not of myth-making. I liked that it was a story rife with symbolism that didn't attempt to finalize or drive home its symbols' rhythmic impressions in any definite way.

I liked, in other words, that Train Dreams: A Novella managed to be a portrait in miniature that didn't feel too strong a need to account for the grander sum of all of its parts. It could have been. Given the theme of trains, for example, there's a clear through-line from the moment in Walden, or Life in the Woods when Thoreau stops and hears, maybe for the the first time, an oncoming locomotive running through the woods some distance away; through to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, in which the story of male transcendentalism is derailed, both as a literal technology and as a narrative about the individual male; through to a novel like Train Dreams. But I liked that this was avoided. The literary history, though appreciable, isn't always necessary, and would've been a little too much here. It might've won Johnson a Pulitzer prize, but it wouldn't have done Robert Grainier any favors.

This is a beautiful, imperfect work. As much as it's "about" America in the early 20th-century, and the above quote is a sure testament to that, I found it most of all to be about a single man and the social, narrative, and thematic languages that could be used to define him. This is a quality that I sense some of Johnson's other works to share, and I admire him for it.
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message 1: by Geoff (new) - added it

Geoff Great review!


KFed Thank you!


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