This is my review of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
This novella which contrives to pack more into 115 pages than many a rambling, self-indulgent saga, captures the lives of Americans living on the harsh yet beautiful frontier of the north-western states in the first half of the twentieth century. The main character is Robert Grainier, a simple, semi-literate casual labourer who repairs railroad bridges and hauls forest timber. A brief period of personal happiness with an acre of land in the Moyea Valley, a wife and baby daughter, is destroyed by a ferocious forest fire. Yet, Grainger finds the dignity and resilience to rebuild a life which may seem insignificant, but forms part of the great wave of human effort to settle a continent. This is what gives an ostensibly sad book a note of optimism.
Although he spends most of his life in mourning, there are frequent touches of humour – comic scenes arise unexpectedly, as when he agrees to help a disreputable friend, who wants to assist a widow in moving house so he can lay hands on her money – , lurking superstitions about "wolf-girls" and touches of the surreal fed by the scale of the surrounding wilderness, contact with the local Kootenai Indians, and the nocturnal howling of wolves and coyotes, which Grainger begins to copy to gain a sense of release. There is a keen sense of nature, as when Grainger notices " it was full-on spring, sunny and beautiful. and the Moyea Valley showed a lot of green against the dark of the burn. The ground was healing….A mustard-tinged fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up".
The strength of the book lies in the quality of the clear and vivid prose, which struck me as poetical before I knew that the author has won prizes for his verse.
Here is a description of the aftermath of the fire, which you may appreciate if you have visited areas like the Yellowstone National Park:
“The world was gray, white, black and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire….he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all of the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away. He drove through a layer of ash deep enough, in some places, that he couldn’t make out the roadbed any better than if he’d driven through winter snows”.
I would place Denis Johnson on a par with Cormac McCarthy, but without the brutality.