Friday, June 22, 2012

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

     There has been a great deal of discussion surrounding Denis Johnson's 2002 novella, Train Dreams, especially since it was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  But as you may recall, the judges did not choose a winner for the fiction category this year.  Even so, Train Dreams offers a powerful portrait of Robert Grainier, a laborer in Idaho in the early 1900s.  Grainier has worked in lumber, agriculture, or the railroad industry for most of his life.  His mind, body, and spirit have been exhausted by days of long, hard labor and nights of quiet loneliness.  When a fire destroys his homestead and his family - a wife and infant daughter - he is briefly shattered.  But Grainier came of age in the days of westward expansion, so he perseveres - quietly but steadily.  Johnson succinctly describes Robert Grainier as such:
Grainier himself lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s.  In his time he'd traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he'd never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana.  He'd had one lover - his wife, Gladys - owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon.  He'd never been drunk.  He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.  He'd ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once in an aircraft.  During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town.  He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him. (p. 113)
     Grainier appears to be a man with no past or present, and very little future.  He was raised by an aunt and uncle who died before he could ask about his origins, both his wife and daughter were taken from him just a few years into marriage, and he never married again.  In fact, his only companions for the rest of his life consisted of a few stray dogs.

     But people like Robert Grainier are a very real part of our American heritage, even if their stories are often forgotten or lost.  Grainier appears to have lived a simple life - he worked all day, slept fitfully, and died with no heirs to carry on his name or memory.  But he also knew friendship, happiness, grief, lust, fear, devastation, and excitement.  We live in an age where life's success is measured by accomplishments and legacies.  A man like Robert Grainier would have achieved very few accomplishments by today's standards and left behind little that would resemble a legacy, but with Train Dreams, Denis Johnson starkly draws our attention to the unrecalled aspects of American heritage.  The novella is brief, but powerful, offering a portrait of forgotten Americana and questioning what it means to live completely and leave a legacy.

Overall Rating: