Tuesday 11 September 2012

Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

'gone forever'

The book that failed to bag the Pulitzer Prize in the year that the board decided that none of its shortlist deserved the accolade (or couldn't agree on which one did) actually began life as a story in the Paris Review back in 2002. As an avid devourer of Johnson's writing I had been frustrated for many years by seeing the title appear on a certain web-based book supplier but only in German, I believe. How long would it be before this novella finally got published in English again for those of us who'd missed out originally? A whole decade later it is finally in print thanks to Granta who are having a barnstorming year quite frankly. I was a little cautious too however. Johnson's last published work was Nobody Move, a novel which had previously been serialised in Playboy magazine, and whilst I found much to enjoy it felt like a bit of filler after his opus Tree of Smoke. So I was a little worried when Train Dreams finally saw the light of day. Was this going to be another bit of (previously published) filler before the next major work? Let me answer my own question with an emphatic no! Train Dreams is far from being filler. It may only be just over 100 pages, a novella, but it contains a man's life, a lost era and a richness and satisfaction that shouldn't be possible in such a short book. It might even be his best, but his readers are sure to disagree about that. It is certainly worthy of proper publication and in my limited experience of the Pulitzer shortlist (I gave up on The Pale King after reading more pages than in the whole of Train Dreams and Swamplandia! didn't appeal) should probably have picked up that prize.

Train Dreams begins in 1917 with its hero, Robert Granier, part of a group of railway workers that attempt to murder a Chinese labourer. The men have all been working together for Spokane International in Idaho on the construction of a bridge and it is from this half-completed structure that they attempt to throw the accused thief. He manages to escape after spitting curses at his tormentors and Granier in fact believes the man may literally have cursed his life, something we will watch unfold over the following 116 pages. This is an America still being tamed and settled and Granier's work on the railways and in the woods felling trees puts him at the very edge, where the wildness of nature combines with the civilising effect of human settlement. This meeting point is the crux of the novel. Not only do humans behave savagely but nature strikes back with her own forms of destruction, Granier's dog isn't nearly domesticated enough, running with wolves. Even his young child appears unsafe in the low light of his cabin.

In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turn on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
All of his life Robert Granier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.

Granier works as a choker, looping cable around the wood that has already been felled by sawyers, cleaned up by limbers and cut by buckers, ready to be hauled out from the woods by horses.

Granier relished the work, the straining, the heady exhaustion, the deep rest at the end of the day. He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.

That sense is illusory though for, as one of his aged colleagues is keen to warn, 'the trees themselves were killers'. The meeting of man and nature is important again because 'It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war.' We might expect this to presage an accident whilst he works but the forest attacks Granier in another way entirely when a fire sweeps through the valley where his wife and daughter live and he returns home to find no trace of them at all. So begins the solitary phase of his life (apart from that dog for company), one that he will share with the reader, one in which he will continue to live at the boundaries of the tamed world for "God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit."

Johnson has often written about those on the margins of society but in Granier he has a man even more isolated than most. Grieving for his losses for the rest of his life he is afraid of his dreams, of his wandering mind and the fleeting contact he has with others is just enough to keep him within the realms of what we might consider a normal life. A little like his dog we feel that left alone for long enough he might cross over to that wild side becoming even more connected to the landscape around him rather than the railway he helped to build right through it. Johnson's prose is perfectly pitched so that the dream-like or visionary image can break through the surface of civility, and in its exploration of themes as varied as racial integration, violence and isolation he also manages to make us question how sure a hold we have on what makes us human.

This is the kind of book that makes the reader marvel at how much the author has managed to cram in but which never feels crowded or overworked. I have barely mentioned any of the incident and not even hinted at the quite extraordinary way in which the story develops and concludes. It is a gem of a novella, not neat at all but rugged and dangerous, written with the kind of skill that manages to hide all the machinery away so that the reader doesn't even realise how it is all done; and whilst it is obviously a treat for those like me who already know what an amazing writer Johnson is it will be an even bigger treat for those who have yet to discover him. You lucky bastards.


stujallen 11 September 2012 at 15:10  

I ve only read Jesus son and already dead both in 90's I do like him and maybe have left it to long before I ve tried him again strange this slim book seems packed when book like tree of his a huge book ,I ve tree of and nobody moves that a freind sent me to read before this one was shocked when it miss Pulitzer ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 12 September 2012 at 07:35  

Tree of Smoke is the book that pushed Johnson into the public gaze thanks to it winning the National Book Award but it's such a tough book and I worry that it has put a lot of potential readers off. You'll know from Jesus' Son how lean and hilarious his writing can be. Train Dreams is another of his shorter works that dazzles with the amount it crams in, a far better introduction to those who haven't read him before and another treat for those of us who have. Thanks as ever for the comment Stu.

Jacqui (@jacquiwine),  8 December 2012 at 10:03  

I read this in one sitting earlier this week. I thought it an extraordinary book. I think you put your finger on it when you say it contains a man’s life, a lost era and a richness and satisfaction – all in just over 100 pages. Quite remarkable. From the first page, it pulled me into Grainier’s world and he felt like a fully-formed character from the get-go. The aftermath of the fire, and its impact on Grainier, is quite devastating…This is my first experience of Denis Johnson and I hope it won’t be my last. In some ways, he reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, although perhaps Johnson’s prose is a little more humane, more compassionate?

William Rycroft 15 December 2012 at 01:00  

Sorry for the slow reply Jacqui but thrilled to read that you enjoyed this book so much. In trying to place Johnson alongside other writers I would struggle mainly because Johnson is such a slippery fish himself. No two books of his are the same in just about any way. His prose changes, his focus, his length, he also writes poetry, plays, journalism. He's an amazing writer and I only hope you'll have as much fun working through his oeuvre as I have.

Anonymous,  16 January 2014 at 03:06  

I have just read Train Dreams (Christmas present) and you're right, I've just realised how lucky I am to have everything else by this author still to discover. I enjoyed your review, you put much of what I hadn't quite defined into words. Any recommendations on which to read next? Sara

William Rycroft 16 January 2014 at 08:11  

So pleased to hear that you enjoyed reading this Sara. I was recommending it to someone just the other day so what perfect timing for your comment. As for where to go next I'd suggest that his story collection, Jesus' Son, is a great place to venture. The writing in them is extraordinary and the stories are dark, funny and original. Then, if you've the stomach for it, I'd recommend his debut novel, Angels, which is even more uncompromising! Enjoy.

Anonymous,  17 January 2014 at 00:18  

Sounds interesting! Thanks for the recommendation, Sara

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