2012 Catch-up – Train Dreams

train dreams

Every year books slip past me unread: those I read or hear about (often immediately thinking, “I must get hold of that!”) but never quite get round to seeking out; those I buy and then stack up in piles which by December I still haven’t reached the bottom of (these are often anything exceeding 500 pages which I put aside for when I have ‘more time’); and, a more recent category, those I download but never open (they’re so easy to ignore…). This year I made a little list of those books that had particularly aggrieved me by escaping – and then I hunted them down during the post-Christmas sales…

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was not a book I had heard much about during the year, but it did appear on a number of ‘Best of…’ lists in December and sounded intriguing. Johnson was a writer I had never read before- reading a lot of translated fiction I do have a habit of neglecting Americans. It also had the advantage of being short – which at least meant that I would read it – a novella that first appeared in The Paris Review in 2002 (so I suppose I’d already missed it ten years before).

Train Dreams is written in a lean prose though it has a dream-like quality that perhaps comes from the non-chronological nature of the narrative, a series of scenes from the life of its central character, Robert Granier. Any imagery is drawn straight from nature: “like a weasel in a sack”; “like a seed in a wind”; “like a cornered brute.” Granier makes a living from building railway bridges and felling trees. He is granted little happiness: an early memory of returning home to his wife and baby with sarsaparilla he has bought on the way demonstrates his love and reoccurs when he takes a flight in an early plane:

“He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their little cabin on a summer’s night…”

By that time, however, his wife and child are dead, killed in a bush fire which rages out of control and destroys the cabin completely:

“The cabin was cinders, burned so completely that its ashes has mixed in with a common layer all about and then been tamped down by the snows and washed and dissolved by the thaw.”

Granier settles among the devastation, the mythical outsider in Dante’s version of the American frontier. He is something of a ghost haunting American history: there for the railroads being built, there for that early flight; there to see Elvis; and still there in the 1960s to see another bridge being built across the Moyea River.

Echoing Granier’s loneliness, dogs and wolves form a backdrop to the narrative (even a dog which manages to shoot its owner). When Granier’s dog has wolf pups they soon wander off bar one who will not even howl when it hears the wolves in the distance. It is Granier who howls to teach it its nature, and continues howling having perhaps discovered something of his own. In that early memory of his wife he wonders if their baby daughter knows “as much as a dog-pup?” Later a ‘wolf-girl’ breaks into his cabin and he believes her to be his daughter:

“He hoped that some sign of recognition might show itself and prove her to be Kate. But her eyes only watched in flat terror like a wolf’s.”

All of this feeds into the novel’s under-stated but poignant end.

At times it might seem as if the drop down menu of American fiction has been used – there’s time to fit in a dying hobo and a superstitious Indian on top of everything else – but it is so beautifully written that much can be forgiven. In the end it is both an addition to, and meditation on, American myth.

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