Book Review | Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Several years ago I went on a trip to Hawaii. For my beach reading, I brought along Alan Greenspan’s autobiography, Age of Turbulence. It was a giant book. It wasn’t light reading, and I think I spent the whole trip reading it in between naps on the beach. It was good. It just wasn’t the right read for the right place.

I just got back from a trip to Costa Rica where I spent two full days of the trip reading on the beach. I didn’t make the same mistake. I decided to get my hands on some short fiction, short story collections and Neil Gaiman’s latest collection on Norse Mythology. This is how I ended up reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

This is a small book checking in at just over 100 pages. It even felt a little smaller in the hands when reading even with the durable library bindings – the bindings probably contained more mass than the pages. But in every other way, it was a big book and a very enjoyable read.

It is a postmodern Western that manages to explore a lot of the things that make other postmodern Westerns fun to read. E.g. Rugged individualism and its discontents, nostalgic longing for a past left behind by technological advances and replaced with a foreign and disorienting modernity, humanity’s place in a hostile wilderness cleverly disguised as a source of pastoral abundance, cultural imperialism and its discontents, the Sublime, the gothic, the sparse prose that says a lot by saying little. This little book has all of this.

I don’t like doing plot summary in book reviews. Summaries are easy enough to find, but it is worth noting that the storytelling is strong. The protagonist’s character arc is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. He goes through a lot of change. In addition to these solid fundamentals and the thematic depth mentioned above, the novel also boasts scenes with acrobatic Chinamen (think Jackie Chan), a massive forest fire ecopocalypse and subsequent renewal, and maybe even a shape-shifting werewolf (it is set in the Northwest after all).

By the time I finished, I looked up Denis Johnson’s other works and wondered how I’ve made it this long without ever reading anything else he’s written. I don’t know if he has some kind of cult fan club, but if anyone reading this has some suggestions of which of his other books are as good as Train Dreams, I am open to suggestions. Meanwhile, if you’re headed to a beach, some other vacation or you want something you could probably finish in one sitting, you should give this book a read.

Train Dreams Book Cover Train Dreams
Denis Johnson
May 22, 2012

Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions. It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century---an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West, this novella by the National Book Award--winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.