Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is like a long out-of-print B-side, a hard-to-find celebrated work treasured by those in the know that’s finally become available to the rest of us.
The novella was being published Tuesday in book form after appearing previously only in the Paris Review and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 edition.
The question is: Does it live up to its reputation?
“Train Dreams,” a mini-epic set mostly in the Idaho panhandle in the early years of the 20th century, was praised by prize jurors David Guterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), who cited its “exquisite use of the English language,” and Jennifer Egan (“A Visit From the Goon Squad”), who extolled its “otherworldly atmospheric richness.”
Since he wrote “Train Dreams,” Johnson, whose best known early work is the 1992 story collection “Jesus’ Son” — made into a 1999 art-house hit movie starring Billy Crudup — has published two more novels. The capacious Vietnam novel “Tree of Smoke” came out in 2007, and won the National Book Award. The blunt-edged, fast-paced, and a-lot-less-long noir exercise “Nobody Move” followed in 2009.
“Train of Dreams” is an odd book, but a strangely compelling one. It’s the story of the life of one man, Robert Grainier, who is born in 1880 and dies in 1968, never having spoken on a telephone.
He spends his early adulthood working on great transportation projects that reshape the Pacific Northwest. He’s “hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest, and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.”
The book begins with a comical episode in which a Chinese laborer suspected of theft evades the efforts of a team of men to toss him to his death off a railroad trestle into teeming rapids below, and the woodsy workmen’s world is wonderfully evoked, particularly in the first chapters.
Grainier and his fellows “fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce ... accomplishing labors … living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints. ...”
Johnson’s mythopoeic prose recalls Cormac McCarthy and nods to Bret Harte. And as the story takes a tragic — and a mystical, magic realist — turn after Grainier returns home to the cabin, much of the pleasure in reading “Train Dreams” comes from the luxurious exactitude of Johnson’s writing, as when he describes Grainier entering the site of a cabin destroyed by wildfire.
“Train Dreams” can fit into your back pocket, but it is not a small, perfect thing. As Grainier settles into the life of a hermit, communing (and howling) with wolves in the pitch-black night, his story becomes directionless, save for a few episodic jolts.
He goes to town and is overcome with lust after seeing a traveling sideshow. In a scene of heavy-handed symbolism, Elvis Presley comes through a Montana town on a private train, bringing the ever-accelerating modern world with him, but Grainier arrives too late even to wave at the passerby, left behind once again.
But for all its idiosyncrasies, “Train Dreams” is a peculiarly gripping book. It palpably conjures the beauty of an American West then still very much a place of natural wonder and menace, and places one man’s lonely life in that landscape, where he’s at once comfortably at home and utterly lost.