It took me either one year or one day to read this book, depending on how you look at it. I received Train Dreams by Denis Johnson for Christmas last year (by my request) and then started it a few weeks later, sitting in a teachers’ lounge in a school on a break between classes. I must have been so distracted by whatever gossip I was overhearing that day that I forgot to ever return to the novella. Today, it was clear from the grey outset that I wasn’t going to accomplish much in the way of fiction writing, so I figured, after writing another blog post this morning, I might as well peruse my book shelf and at least make some headway there. I picked up Train Dreams again and am certainly glad I did.
This is a tiny novella of pleasing pocket-book proportions. It spans nearly eighty years, though and an eventful eighty years at that–the protagonist, Robert Grainier, a frontier day laborer, lives to go from riding in a cart pulled by horses to flying, once, in a biplane, to just missing a glimpse of Elvis as he passes through town. When he dies in the 1960s, he has watched television but never owned a telephone.
Manifest Destiny runs through this story in an incredibly overt yet simultaneously understated way. The novella opens with Robert taking part in the thwarted execution of a “Chinaman”–he joins a group of men attempting to toss the suspected thief off the end of the bridge they are building. Because of another group of white men, a Native American man literally gets strewn across miles of train tracks. Yet this is not a book that broadcasts messages or makes judgments. Robert has absolutely bizarre encounters–as a young boy he gives a dying train hopper his last drink from a boot after hearing how this man caused the death of a young girl through his despicable actions–an incident Robert never reveals to anyone. He fetches a man from a remote location who has been shot–by his dog. I don’t want to give away here what the central event of the book is, but, though it is unbearably sad, spurs Robert’s lifelong loneliness and subsequently takes two wildly supernatural turns, it remains even-keeled and straightforward. In fact, I think that Johnson gets away with so many beyond belief aspects in one book just because they are treated so evenly, with so little fan-fare. One can handle magical realism if it is delivered packaged in the same prose as the realism.
This is a subtle, deft, original and absolutely beautiful book. I spent half of a dinner the other night enthusing about Jesus’s Son–my friends all better get ready to hear me evangelize about this one, too.