Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a novella about an early 20th-century logger and bridge builder in the northwestern United States, has garnered rave reviews from publications such as The Scotsman, The Observer, and The New York Times. Its straightforward, even stilted, prose imitates the hapless career of the orphaned Robert Granier. Robert grows up north of Spokane in Bonners Ferry near the Canadian border, joins logging crews, and marries a Methodist named Gladys who is immolated along with their daughter in a forest fire while Robert is in the woods earning money as a choker, looping cut logs with “cable to be hauled out by the horses.” Robert spends the rest of his life trying to rise from the ashes on his acre beside the Moyea river where his wife and child went up in flames.
In the tradition of episodic surrealism associated with Cormac McCarthy and others, the protagonist runs into a series of characters—the fattest man in the world, Elvis Presley’s train (almost), an itinerant statutory rapist in remorse, a young bush pilot, an Indian named Kootenai Bob who knows how wolves have mated successfully with dogs and sometimes women, and a “Chinaman” who escapes death for thievery by swinging across a wooden span of a train bridge. Robert, who doesn’t kick the bucket until the 1960s, sees a lot of ghosts and makes friends with a couple of dogs along the way.
Train Dreams is a man’s book, fabulist like Silas Marner or Ethan Frome, uncomplicated like Hemingway, transparent in prose style like Raymond Carver’s influential work. The novella begins with the action-packed hair-breath escape of the Chinese man from the railroad crew who have a mind to throw the “coolie” into the gorge, then moves in Chapter 2 to Canada where Granier logs with the Simpson Company, meeting old Arn Peeples, who at his age and size is best employed to set dynamite in tunnels, and Arn’s friend Billy who comes down with a bad case of the flu. In these scenes, where “never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime” with the “sticky feel of pitch in their beards” and “sweat washing the dust off their long johns,” Johnson’s prose gains its most vivid moments, in the naturalist tradition of American letters.
Once the Chinese man escapes and Granier’s wife is scorched like the earth for miles around Bonners Ferry, the book loses the name of action and becomes the story of a hermit who does odd jobs like carting dead ranch hands to the mortuary or taking a man shot by his dog to a nearby doctor. He eats morel mushrooms and rainbow trout, sees she-wolves and other ghosts in the night, and refuses a possible proposal from a Montana widow. One August, Robert is tempted by an upcoming stage show with living models, including “Miss Galveston, Winner of the Famous Pageant of Pulchritude in Galveston, Texas,” but he is able to cool the stings of his lust with some cold lake plunges and naked nights on a palette outside his cabin. That’s all the sex that’s fit to print.