Train Dreams ~ Denis Johnson

It’s the summer of 1917 and Robert Grainier is working on a railgang for the Spokane International Railway up in the Idaho Panhandle. Robert, now thirty-five, after a bachelor life had married Gladys and had a little girl, Kate – four months old. The family has built a cabin in the woods and are living a life of quiet contentment, when Robert comes home one day only to find the woods ablaze, his cabin, when he can make his way to it, burned to ashes. Distraught, he searches in vain for his wife and child. Never to find them.

He throws himself into his work cutting wood in the forest, hauling stuff for his neighbors. Finally, much later, he builds another cabin on the same spot as the first one. Here, he lives out the rest of his life in solitude.

You won’t find sparer prose in this tale of a simple man.

…often he dreamed  of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by. And then he was standing in that world as the sound of the train died away. A frail familiarity in these scenes hinted to him that they came from his childhood. Sometimes he woke to hear the sound of the Spokane International fading up in the valley and realized he’d been hearing the locomotive as he dreamed.

The dream feeling is apt. I can’t decide if this is most like a man retelling his long dream, or if we’re dreaming along with Robert Grainier. His life is told as if a dream and one can conceive of all out lives being told like this one. The time of our own dreaming. But then the realization. Grainier lives a long life, always working as best he can until frailty catches up with him. And the world has changed. Drastically. While we’ve been dreaming along with Grainier, the world has gone on at it’s own pace. A pace much faster than the pace that Grainier lived his own life. Then it all goes black. And it’s over.

“A world went by.”

This was a tweener novella for me. I knew I had Sebastian Barry’s new one coming today and needed something short until then. A perfect fill in.


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