Miami Herald // Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

My review of Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams ran in the 9/11/11 Miami Herald.

The difficulty of publishing a masterpiece like Jesus’ Son — apart from, you know, actually writing it — is that every book Denis Johnson writes for the rest of his life will be compared to it. Part of what makes his work so great is that the prose is so deceptively simple. Tree of Smoke, the magisterial epic about America and its involvement in Vietnam that earned Johnson the 2007 National Book Award, also shows a great deal of restraint. Johnson consistently builds complex and frequently damaged characters out of carefully chosen details and gestures. And he makes it look easy.

Johnson’s new novella may be his most pared-down work of fiction yet, but make no mistake — it packs a wallop. The text originally appeared in the venerable Paris Review in 2002 and now finds its way back into print not a moment too soon. I’m not sure why Johnson waited so long to resurrect this story, but I’m glad he did. Perhaps the growing popularity of e-readers is contributing to the recent resurgence of the novella form. Whatever the reason, Train Dreams is a small book of weighty ideas. It renders the story of America and our westward course of empire in the most beautiful and heartbreaking manner imaginable.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century and focuses on Robert Grainier, who has joined a lynch mob attempting to murder a “Chinaman” who helped build the railroads but got accused of pilfering from his employer. While making his escape, the laborer puts a curse on Grainier, or so he believes, and that will have a profound impact on the remainder of his and his family’s life. That said, I don’t want to write too much about what else happens to Grainier, for fear of ruining for you what is an intense and rewarding reading experience. (My own reading of the novella was interrupted by an earthquake and a hurricane. That seems appropriate somehow.) The clashes of competing forces — American vs. Chinese, for example— is vintage Johnson. So too is the confusion between religion and superstition.

Train Dreams is easily construed as some sort of commentary on American expansionism and manifest destiny. Johnson writes: “This sudden attention to terrain so long neglected constituted a disruption in the natural world, about as much as if the Almighty himself had been hit in the head.” The will to move westward carried with it every nature of sacrifice — the uprooting of native populations, the destruction of vast natural vistas — in the name of progress. But Johnson is too smart of a writer, and too subtle, to offer a blanket approval or condemnation of those policies. He’s interested in bigger questions.

Train Dreams explores what was lost in the process of American growth. Much to his credit, Johnson doesn’t simply posit industry and nature against each other, or science and religion, or even human and animal, but instead looks at how their interactions can transform both. And Grainier is there through all of this examination, over the course of his long and sad life, to serve as our witness and maybe even our conscience.