What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy … Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence … The novella runs 116 pages, and you can turn all of those pages in 90 minutes. In that hour and a half the whole crimped, swirling, haunted life of Robert Grainier rattles through the forests of your mind like the whistle of the Spokane International he hears so often in his dreams.
This novella is indeed simpler and sparer than anything else Johnson has written … The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured … I started reading Train Dreams with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story’s unaffected tact and honesty … [Grainier’s] life has been, in some ways, an obscure anomaly, spent, in the heart of the twentieth century, pretty much as it might have been a hundred years earlier. Johnson’s novella has an elegiac tinge.
Set in the rural West, Train Dreams is a portrait of containment, of compression and restraint … Grainer lives, works and suffers tragedy; he loses his wife and baby daughter and must find a way to go on. He watches the world grow up around him, yet manages to keep his distance and continue living as he knows … Born in one century, living mostly in another, he becomes a three-dimensional metaphor for the industrialization of the country, the slow passage from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul … Johnson gets at the key issue of his writing: the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can't decipher what it means.
Denis Johnson’s new novella, Train Dreams—a brilliantly imagined elegy to the lost wilderness of the early 20th-century Idaho Panhandle and the ‘hard people of the northwest mountains’ who occupied it—focuses on the life story of one such hard person, Robert Grainier … Grainer goes from being ‘a steady man,’ content with his small family and work on timber and bridge-building crews, to being a loner who resettles on the site of his old cabin … Grainier’s wild howling illuminates one of the book’s guiding premises: that those who built the northwest did not just conquer the wilderness but were conquered and absorbed by it in turn … If Train Dreams imagines a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, it remains at heart a gorgeous song of praise for the northwest’s chastened white settlers—a song sung in a more subdued but arguably more powerful lyrical voice than fans of Jesus’ Son will remember.
Train Dreams is a gorgeous, rich book about the classic American myth, but written for a country that’s lost faith in its own mythology. It’s a portrait of the West when we were rich, cocky, and our destiny had manifested, but told through the eyes of Grainier, who is humble, ungreedy, and unsure of himself … At barely over 100 pages, you can afford to read it slowly, enjoying the gorgeous, small, weird scenes, Johnson’s hallmark as an excellent short-story writer … The train itself is an interesting central anchor for a book about being disappointed with progress. The train was both the realization and the destruction of the pioneer dream … Train Dreams, luscious with grief, regret, and lowered expectations, is a lesson in end-of-the-frontier humility for a country anticipating apocalypse.
Train Dreams comes to us as a seemingly plain and stark depiction of an ordinary American man's life on the waning frontier in the early days of the last century. Denis Johnson works in what I would call emotive exposition, which lends declarative statements a certain kind of dramatic force. He works the story of Robert Grainier's unself-examined life with a sort of matter of fact tone that gives off its own vitality … What seems merely descriptive here becomes emotionally evocative. But this is more than just an exercise in style. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will feel Robert Grainier who dies in the 1960s living on in their minds.
Grainier’s story is the story of an ordinary man told in an extraordinary way in extraordinarily spare yet magical prose, and that some of Johnson’s best writing is on display here. It is a book of wonders both real and imagined … All the information is filtered through Grainier in a subtle, understated use of free indirect discourse, and it is Grainier’s consciousness and how that consciousness behaves as a lens through which we look at the past that Johnson wants us to look at … There is a wonderful tipping point in Train Dreams at which Grainier and his world turn from real life people and things into myth, into the long ago, into stuff left stored not even in a book but only, somehow and strangely, in the human imagination.
It's a triumph of spare writing that sketches the life of Grainier, a logger and hauler born in 1886, and who dies, in a different world, in 1968 … A small life perhaps, if any life is small. But in a blend of myth and history, Johnson builds a world around Grainier. He's more a survivor than hero, a decent man who once did a bad thing — not that it seemed bad at the time —and once failed to do something he should have done, and never forgot it … Train Dreams is a gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told.
This musical little novella is set mostly in the 1920s, and in the logging camps and train-station towns of Idaho and of the Pacific Northwest. It is wholly Johnson's own … Train Dreams puts me in mind of a late Bob Dylan album: with the wildness and psychedelia of youth burned out of him, Johnson's eccentricity is revealed as pure Americana … In this book he's meditating on the ground beneath his feet, and from this meditation creating a new kind of Western.
It's Robert Grainier's story, but it's equally the story of the place, the Idaho Panhandle, and ultimately a capsule of the first half of the 20th century. The story, and Grainier's life, seem completely told. It's an ordinary life, but one filled with wonders, as all lives are if we only look … Johnson captures the feeling of the woods and the small towns built around mining, logging and the new railroads. Indians and Chinese laborers also play significant roles. And fire, that constant in Western forests, provides the heart-wrenching core of the story, through which Grainier must pass.
...the synthesis of Johnson's epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus' Son. The story is a snapshot of early 20th-century America as railroad laborer Robert Grainier toils along the rails that will connect the states and transform his itinerant way of life … The years bring diminishing opportunities, strange encounters, and stranger dreams, but it's not until after participating in the miracle of flight—and a life-changing encounter with a mythical monster—that Grainier realizes what he's been looking for.