Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Briefly, the Long Span of a Life: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson turned a wide-angle lens on the Vietnam War in Tree of Smoke, giving the conflict the Norman Mailer treatment: epic, crowded and crystalline in its details.  It was 624 pages long and left me wanting more, it was that good.

In Train Dreams, he is just as Maileresque in his approach to the saga of America's western frontier experience; but where The Executioner's Song took 1,056 pages to hold a multi-faceted gem to the light, turning it every which way to examine the full scope of one man's life, Train Dreams does so in 116 pages with compressed, diamond-precise sentences.

Technically, it's a novella, but you'll come away from Train Dreams with a tingle-dizzy sensation, as if you've been reading the book for weeks, meeting memorable characters, wholly baptized in story, and floating through the pages like you were in a passenger car of a lightweight locomotive as it smokes across the rolling landscape.

Its main character is Robert Grainier, a day laborer working in the Idaho panhandle at the start of the 20th century and its central action is the consumption of his wife and infant daughter in a "feasting" forest conflagration, "a fire stronger than God."  Grief sets Grainier drifting across Idaho and Montana working odd jobs.  Johnson presents his biography in broad strokes that sometimes go off the canvas in Biblical panoramas of misery.  Grainier and Job would have a lot to talk about if they ever sat down together in their piles of ashes.

Johnson tries to bite off a huge hunk of narrative here--addressing racism, manifest destiny, corporate greed and the undeniable power of nature, among other things.  For the most part, he succeeds.  Some readers might find the brush strokes too sweeping and Grainier's story too rushed, but I suggest they need to enter the spirit of the story.  This is not intended to be a sprawling tale in a thick book designed to sprain your wrist; it's an epic written on a bullet that smacks you quick and hard between the eyes.

The story is told in scenes written with the dynamism of billboards; and so we see Grainier lending a hand to a lynch mob trying to throw a Chinese railroad worker off a bridge in 1917 then, less than 20 pages later, he's paying ten cents in 1950 to view the World's Fattest Man reclined on the back of a trailer ("his flesh rolling out on either side of him from one end of the divan to the other and spilling over and dangling toward the floor like an arrested waterfall").  A few dozen pages deeper in the book, he's taking his first (and last) ride in a biplane and then listening to a story told by a man who claimed he was shot by his dog.  He doesn't meet Pecos Bill or confabulate with Paul Bunyan, but I wouldn't have been surprised to see them make cameo appearances in Train Dreams.

This is the story of not just Robert Grainier, but of America itself--the big, woolly, mythic version of the white man's westward expansion, indiscriminately chewing up landscape and Native Americans in the name of progress.  It can also be an intimate, heart-rending love story: on one page there's a description of Robert courting his wife-to-be Gladys ("They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing.  He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him."); then we turn the page and skip ahead across the years to when he returns to his homestead after the devastating fire, searching for Gladys and their daughter who had stayed behind at their cabin:
Soon he was passing through a forest of charred, gigantic spears that only a few days past had been evergreens. The world was gray, white, black, and acrid, without a single live animal or plant no longer burning and yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire. So much ash, so much choking smoke--it was clear to him miles before he reached his home that nothing could be left of it, but he went on anyway, weeping for his wife and daughter, calling, "Kate! Gladys!" over and over.
Johnson is merciless in his descriptions of death: women and children burst into flame; a character named Kootenai Bob, drunk for the first time in his life, lays down on railroad tracks and ends up strewn for miles; and, while loading sacks of cornmeal onto a wagon, an enormous young man announces "I am as dizzy as anything today," then flops over sideways and dies.

Yes, Train Dreams can be grim, but it is also majestic in its soaring descriptions of the natural world, dreamlike in its movement across history, and graced with a light wit (near the end of the book comes one of the funniest marriage proposals in literature since Chekhov).

Reading Train Dreams is, in short, like examining one of those complex model railroad dioramas full of miniature trees, cows no bigger than a fingernail, and hints of domestic dramas taking shape behind the backlit windows of small houses.  And yet, Train Dreams is unlike a static diorama which has been frozen in time by its creator.  No, this short novel moves.  Lord, Lord does it ever move through the tunnels of our hearts and over the mountains of our imaginations.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review of what looks to be a master work by Johnson. It is set in my neck of the woods. The excerpts show Johnson has used this spare voice to perfection in capturing its rawness and beauty, and that of its people.