Jim's Reviews > Train Dreams

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
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's review
Oct 31, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 2012, the-west
Read in June, 2012

Train Dreams is an odd book. It will be remembered for being one of three works of fiction nominated for a Pulitzer in a year in which no prize was awarded. That's odd. The fact that it was originally published in The Paris Review in 2002 makes the nomination even stranger. Were the candidates for fiction so lacking in 2012 that the committee found it necessary to champion a decade-old novella from a well-known writer?

Train Dreams is a character study that explores the hopes and dreams of one Robert Grainier. The chronology jumps around and a lot, but we still get the complete picture of the man's entire life. It's as if Johnson plucked a vintage photo of a Westerner between the wars, a "grainy" anonymous image, and fleshed it out.

Grainier is a tragic figure. One decision has a catastrophic effect on his life and he spends the rest of his days pulling back from anything slightly reckless or foolish, even when the stakes are so low, they exist only in his imagination.

One of Grainier's acquaintances exemplifies this. A Kootenai Indian abstains from alcohol all his life. On the day he is tricked into drinking and becomes quite drunk, he is struck by a train and killed. Grainier is essentially the same man in reverse. Whereas the Indian was killed by what he strove to avoid, Grainier's attempt to avoid repeating the past transforms his life into a kind of shadowy death.

These are melancholy stories to be sure. One gets a sense that Grainier's life is supposed to tell us something, but I'm not really sure what that is. You live, you make mistakes, and then you die. That's not much of a payoff. Perhaps the message is that happiness hinges on one's ability to make peace with the past.

Perhaps the Pulitzer judges are on to something. By nominating a book that was penned pre-Facebook, Train Dreams stands as a kind of testament to solitude that is getting harder and harder to imagine.

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