Steve's Reviews > Train Dreams

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
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's review
Oct 02, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, westerns
Read in October, 2011

I was looking for a little piece of Americana in this novella, and Denis Johnson certainly delivered. It tells the story of Robert Granier, who's an everyday kind of guy, working in logging and bridge building in the early 20th Century. It's a sad story, since Granier lives, for the most part, a lonely (and long) life against the stunning backdrop of the Idaho Panhandle. Granier does experience love, but it's a love that is tragically cut short due to a raging fire that transforms the landscape -- and Granier's life. But Granier remains loyal to both this experience, and its setting. The poignancy of this intermingling of love for a dead wife, and the land where he first experiences happiness, is hard to overstate. Johnson also leavens the sentimentality with some macabre humor that Twain, Bierce, or Flannery O'Connor would of applauded. If you like Cormac McCarthy, with his stark and beautiful landscapes, but feel that the Human Factor is missing in that great writer's grim universe, Johnson's your man. His prose often borders on poetry, and his dialogue is as authentic sounding as it gets. My one complaint is the wolf child bit, which seemed unnecessary, and a distraction in what was otherwise a beautiful story that was both personal and National at the same time.
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05/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9)

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message 9: by Tom (new)

Tom Very helpful review, Steve. I've been dithering over buying this one, not quite trusting the gushing review in NYT Book Review. Thanks.

Steve Tom, this book is a re-issue. You might be able to pick a cheap version on Amazon (though the cover art is beautiful). The book is good, I enjoyed it. It's a quick read.

message 7: by Tom (new)

Tom Oh, a good cover always enhances my reading; contributes to my larger conception of books as works of art, and this cover seems a perfect fit. (I've gone so far in past as to trade in one edition of a favorite book for another just for the artsy cover. Talk about making a fetish of books. Sigh, I guess that's one reason I doubt I'll ever make switch to e-reader.) Thanks for tip, though.

message 6: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy Nice review, Steve. Jesus' Son is also worth checking out.

Steve Nancy wrote: "Nice review, Steve. Jesus' Son is also worth checking out."

Thanks, Nancy. I haven't read that one, but we watched a movie (same title) based upon it. I've liked everything I've read by him so far.

message 4: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy It's the only one I read of his, and I haven't seen the film yet. I'm curious to see how it compares to the book.

message 3: by Tom (last edited Oct 17, 2011 04:35PM) (new)

Tom Hmm, forgive my probable obtuseness, but I was underwhelmed, even unimpressed, nearly outright unmoved by Jesus' Son, and I like to think it wasn't because I lack empathy for plight and suffering of the alienated and confused and addicted, for as the late, great columnist Murray Kempton once wrote, “We are all addicts in various stages of degradation where I live on the Upper West Side, some to heroin, some to small dogs, and some to The New York Times. The heroin is cut, the dogs are paranoid, and the Times cheats by skimping on the West Coast ball scores. No matter; each of us goes upon the street solely in pursuit of his own particular curse.” But I just thought those stories just didn't work as short stories, or even as kind of prose poems on the order of something like Rimbaud or Baudelaire. And I have no problem with short-short enigmatic stories without traditional climax-denoument structure -- Babel is brilliant in that vein -- but I just found myself shrugging after reading most of them. And I'd read some Johnson previously -- his novel Fiskadoro, which was plenty strange, though riveting at times -- so I expected off-the-wall weirdness and violence. Sorry I can't articulate a more insightful reason for my lack of enthusiasm. Maybe it was timing. I read them many years ago. I'd give them another go, but, alas, just donated my copy to a local charity for a fundraiser, and now I'm wishing I'd hung on to it a little longer. This is hardly a substantive contribution to Johnsonian understanding, but thought I'd pass it along for what it's worth because I've long felt a combination of sheepishness and self-righteous conviction about my response to the book.

Steve @Nancy: Nancy, try Tree of Smoke. It's a weird (and epic length) Vietnam era novel, but I liked it (though there are some that hate it).
@Tom. Timing could be it. I dunno. I've had that happen to me a number of times. Then again, it just didn't work for you (and never will). I have to admit, I've been impressed with the overwhelming reaction (like Nancy's) that I've encountered regarding the book. And I've been impressed with Johnson's personal story.

message 1: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy I've read books that were wonderful, no matter what time of my life and others that were only good at certain times. At one time, I never cared for short stories, particularly those that were lacking structure. Jesus' Son worked for me. Maybe I enjoyed it more because of a number of friends and family members who struggle(d) with addiction, or the narrator's thoughts and reflections, or the lingering images that remained with me after reading. I definitely want to read more of his work.

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