Spirit world and working realism: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Another recommendation from one of my best reading advisors, my  old friend Angie Macmillan. Can that woman read! She’s been working really hard ploughing through contemporary fiction and I get the benefit, because she only tells me about books she thinks I’ll enjoy. One of her recent offers was Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

trainAlan Warner reviewed the book  in The Guardian years ago when it came out and found it brilliant. Maybe Angie made a note of that. He was annoyed with the Pulitzer prize people  for not awarding their prize to Johnson and  that seems reasonable – it’s a very good book.  A little  short for me, brought up as I have been on the 800 page nineteenth century greats, though I did think this would be a fine book to read  in a shared reading group, especially with people who have been through some hard times. We’d all recognise some of the beauty and  terror of this novel.

Robert Grainier is a day-labourer in the American West – he’d almost be a character out of the Wallace Stegner novel I recommended here recently –  except he lives right at the end of that time, right into the modern world of the 1960s :  you realise  America is still very, very young. But that’s not  what you’d read this for –  you’d read it for the reality of the man’s life, the brilliant accounts of working, of hard, physical labour, with mates and, later, alone. And you ‘d read it for the love his wife and daughter bring to his life, and for the wild spirits that terrify, comfort and entrance him. I’ve never read such good spirit-writing since Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Maybe I am thinking of Dickens because as well as spirits Denis Johnson can do good old-fashioned realist dialogue and humour. I loved Chapter 7 where Grainier is forced to overhear another man’s bit of courting with Widow Thompson:

Though Grainier stood very near them, Eddie chose this moment to speak sincerely with the widow.

‘The late Mr Thompson was a fine feller,’ he told her..  He spent a tense minute getting up steam, then went on: ‘The late Mr Grainier was a fine feller. Yes.’

Claire said, ‘Yes?’

‘Yes. Everybody who knew him tells me he was an excellent feller and also a most …excellent feller, you might say. So they say. As far as them who knew him.’

‘Well, did you know him, Mr Sauer?’

‘Not to talk to. No. He did me a mean bit of business once… But he was a fine feller, I’m saying.’

‘A mean bit of business, Mr Sauer?’

‘He runned over my goat’s picket and broke its neck with his wagon! He was a sonofabitch who’d sooner steal than work, wadn’t he? But I mean to say! Will you marry a feller?’

‘Which feller do you mean?’

Eddie had trouble getting a reply lined up. Meanwhile Claire opened her door and pushed him aside, climbing out. She turned her back and stood looking studiously at Grainier’s horses.

Eddie came over to Grainier and said to him, ‘Which feller does she think I mean? This feller! Me!’

Grainier could only shrug, laugh, shake his head.

Eddie stood three feet behind the widow and addressed the back of her: ‘The feller I mentioned! The one to marry! I’m the feller!’

There was a lot to love in this short novel. Short. But,  there’s a but coming. I can see the art of short, tight, compressed, and the art of that was good, but I think I wanted more commitment to story, I wanted more story.

Oh, I don’t  like to complain: I’m going to be getting hold of everything else this man has ever written.


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