Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Freebie: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Congratulations to Jill Munson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies.

This week's book giveaway is Train Dreams, the new novel by Denis Johnson.  The author of Jesus' Son, The Name of the World, Angels and the epic Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke has written a book that is thin on pages (116) but thick with beautiful writing.  I'll have a proper review here at the blog in the near future, but for now I can tell you it's one of those slim books that go in like a knife, do a little nerve damage, then slip back out just as quickly, leaving you to look at the white scar for the rest of your life.  I first read Train Dreams in 2003 when it was part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories anthology for that year (it was originally published in The Paris Review) and I have not forgotten it since.  It's a huge story bottled in a small space, telling the life story of laborer Robert Granier who, in the summer of 1920, returns from working on the railroad in northwestern Washington to find his house burned to ash and his family missing.  It's a collage of scenes which capture both Granier's life and the history of America from the late 1800s to the 1960s.  Along the way, we meet the world's fattest man, catch a glimpse of Elvis Presley, hear about a man who was shot by his own dog, and take a bi-plane ride.  Publishers Weekly had this to say about the novella: "An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson."

In introducing the story in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection, juror David Guterson explained his reason for picking Train Dreams as the top prize winner:
      Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is a sweeping tall tale, an homage to Bret Harte, a work of North American magical realism, a yarn of the supernatural variety, and finally the biography of a widower and hermit, Robert Grainier, who weeps in church, fears his dreams, and dies in 1968 without having used a telephone. Is it a short story? That's difficult to say. Perhaps there's no longer such a category.
      Where everything is reduced to a "general death" by the fire that took his wife and only lover, Granier finds his woodstove "lying on its side with its legs curled up under it like a beetle's." He imagines that at the fire's inception "a magazine curled, darkened, and flamed, spiraled upward and flew away page by page, burning and circling." Such attentiveness to detail gives this story credence, but its greater power lies in its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy.
      I admire this story for its celebratory quality, its skillful blending of forms and traditions, its consistently exquisite use of the English language, and in the end for its emotional appeal. I carried it afterward into my dreams.
If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Train Dreams, all you have to do is answer this question:

What is the name of the American artist who painted "The Race," the art on the cover design of the new hardback release (seen above)?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 15--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 16.

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