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For my August 40 by 40 novel, I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I walked into the library at work and asked for help in choosing a novel to read. Train Dreams recently came in and, even though the person who recommended it never read the story, she heard some good things about it and about the author. (My final reason for choosing this story was because it was a novella of 113 pages.)
I found out later that Train Dreams was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. This year was also the first time in 35 years that the Pulitzer prize was not awarded in fiction because the board could not come to a final agreement on a winner. Click HERE for the article.
Train Dreams was an interesting read. It takes place in the early 1900s and it told the story of a man named Robert Grainier, a day laborer who worked with logging crews and bridge building crews in the Pacific northwest. The story was simple in its plot and fairly accessible in its diction, and I think the author’s talent lies in his ability to paint a vivid and extraordinary picture using simple characters, simple dialogue, and simple story lines.
The story read more like a character study…only it was truly two character studies. It was an in-depth look into the character of Robert Grainier, as well as an in-depth look into the character of the growing United States as technology helped it to progress into something new.
Very early in the story, Robert was away with a crew building a railroad bridge over the Robinson Gorge in the summer of 1920. It was his first time working on a railroad bridge crew, and when he returned from the summer job, he found that a wildfire completely wiped out the Moyea Valley. Not only did he lose his home, but he also lost his beloved wife and daughter. As the story progresses, we watch his slow grieving process. He rebuilds a cabin in the same spot as his old home, and tries to rebuild some semblance of a life. The damages that accompany old age–painful joints, painful muscles, painful memories–begin to reveal themselves and take their toll in Robert’s daily existence. He is haunted by visions of his wife Gladys, and I kept getting the impression that he was an outsider watching the country grow without him…like a train passenger sitting still as the world moved quickly outside of the window.
For those who will eventually read it, I won’t ruin the ending here in this post. But I will say that the novella ends rather wildly with a trio of quick scenes in succession that are still sitting with me days after finishing the story.
Train Dreams was a fine read, and Denis Johnson’s writing is superbly crafted, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped (and I definitely did not deem it Pulitzer-worthy). There is a really great New York Times review of Train Dreams that brought up a point that I never before considered, but (now that I think about it) reflects my experience reading the book. (The article can be found HERE.) The experience of reading a novella is powerful because of its brevity. Reading a long novel requires breaks and the distractions of life to intervene; however, reading a novella in one sitting can affect the reader much more because of being completely engrossed in the story “distraction-free”. Unfortunately, I took my time reading Train Dreams over the course of three weeks, and I wonder if that was why it didn’t have a great impact on me.