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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

October 25, 2013



This novella opens in 1917 in the Idaho panhandle. Our protagonist, Robert Granier, helps a group of employees from the Spokane International Railway detain a Chinese laborer accused of stealing. They wrestle the man out to the end of a half-built railway bridge where attempt to pitch him into the gorge. But the man escapes and, like a circus performer, climbs down the trestles to safety where he, Granier believes, places a curse upon them all.

It’s hard to say if Granier’s life is cursed or if it is just the hard life of the time. Granier marries and has a daughter, but continues to travel, working the railroads of the northwest. He returns from a job one day to find that a wildfire has burned out the valley and his wife and daughter are gone.  From that point on, he spends much of his life in a dreamlike state, wandering about, trying to cope with his loss:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit.”

Granier is a character in America’s dream. A pawn in her signature achievement—the taming of the continent. He witnesses history unfold before him. In one scene, he is in a small town when Elvis Presley’s train car comes through. In another, as an old man, he is filled with childlike delight and wonder as he takes a ride on a wild new machine called an airplane.

Train Dreams is a beautiful story, a blend of western fiction, tragedy, allegory and magical realism. Somewhere between Cormac McCarthy, Richard Brautigan and Larry McMurtry. It is short, but feels epic. It is like poetry, with an economy of words that contain within them a vastness of imagery, meaning and story. It is very deserving of all the praise it received and all the “Best Books of the Year” lists it made in 2011.

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