Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800’s and into the 1960’s. It chronicles the life of Robert Grainier and his struggles to carve out a living through logging, building railroads, and working odd jobs. At a deeper level, Train Dreams meditates on the losses Grainier experiences and how he adapts. The writing is thoughtful and gorgeous., showing Johnson’s skill as a writer and Grainier’s fresh perspective. Furthermore, the narrative flows well and lends the novella a dream-like quality as time jumps around through Grainier’s memories.
Shifting to Grainier, he is a bit of an everyman. He’s hardworking, keeps to himself, soft-spoken, and quiet. He comes across as a bit naive and ignorant. But, is Grainier of average intelligence or below? It’s hard to say, perhaps, Grainier is a product of his time, a man given to the work of western expansion.
Reprinted in 2011, Train Dreams is the perfect read for those in a reflective mood or those who wish to experience a person’s life unfold and develop. There is a quietness to the writing that reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s work. Moreover, the novella is a truly American story and opens a window on a time and place many have forgotten. So far, this is the best piece of fiction I’ve read in 2012.