Review: Train Dreams

Issue #116
Winter 2011-12

Denis Johnson’s new novella, Train Dreams—a brilliantly imagined elegy to the lost wilderness of the early 20th-century Idaho Panhandle and the “hard people of the northwest mountains” who occupied it—focuses on the life story of one such hard person, Robert Grainier.

The novella opens in 1917 as Grainier, part of a railroad bridge-building crew, is swept up in a casual act of racial violence and helps throw a Chinese laborer off the half-built trestle into the Moyea River below. The man escapes death, but Grainier believes himself cursed by him: a curse he considers fulfilled three years later when the fire that incinerates the valley reduces his homestead to ashes and, to all appearances, his wife and young daughter with it.

As a result, Grainer goes from being “a steady man,” content with his small family and work on timber and bridge-building crews, to being a loner who resettles on the site of his old cabin. Held to the desolate spot by a ghostly visitation from his dead wife, Gladys, who informs him that their daughter, Kate, has miraculously escaped the fire, Grainier makes a modest living as a hauler, carting goods, corpses, coffins, the injured, and the barely-living both to and from the places that the railroad does not reach.

Throughout his long life, Grainier hears and sometimes witnesses legendary stories in the making. Some are funny, like one about a man shot by his own dog; others are grim, still others magical. Many involve life-and-death ironies, like the story of Arn Peeples, an aging powder monkey who declares that a tree “might treat you as a friend” until you cut into it. Peeples eludes death by dynamite, only to be seriously injured by a falling branch, and then ultimately felled by the flu epidemic.

Though Grainier may be a magnet for stories, he becomes, as one of his cart passengers declares, a “hermit in the woods,” no longer used to human touch and speech. His aural landscape is marked by the wail of the Spokane International and the howls of coyotes and wolves. Grainier himself takes up the habit of howling, first to teach one of his dogs how to do it and then “because it did him good.”

Grainier’s wild howling illuminates one of the book’s guiding premises: that those who built the northwest did not just conquer the wilderness but were conquered and absorbed by it in turn. In one
significant episode, young Grainier comes across a dying man, a hamstrung robbery victim who seems to be in the process of literally merging with earth: “a mouth hole moving in a stack of leaves and rags and matted brown hair.” Even more fateful is Grainier’s encounter with a feral wolf girl who haunts the valley: an apparition we chalk up to legend until she appears in the flesh.

If Train Dreams imagines a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, it remains at heart a gorgeous song of praise for the northwest’s chastened white settlers—a song sung in a more subdued but arguably more powerful lyrical voice than fans of Jesus’ Son will remember. Johnson’s love for his subject is palpable in his summation of Grainier as a man who had never seen the ocean, spoken into a telephone, been drunk, or, with the exception of one brief flight at a county fair, ridden on an airplane. The era that could produce such a man is, as the novella’s last line proclaims, gone forever.

Jocelyn Lieu is the author of a collection of stories, Potential Weapons, and a memoir, What Isn’t There. She lives in New York City and teaches in the Creative Writing Program and John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program at New York University.