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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams is a quiet little book that spans legendary time spaces of the American West. The building of the railroads, the subtle disintegration of the Indians of the West, the advent of cars, planes and the cinema all make graceful appearances here, as Johnson tells the story of Robert Grainier, logger, railroader, husband, father.

Pieces of this book feel almost like an adult version of Little House on the Prairie, with Johnson’s descriptions of the main character Grainier building his cabin, working the lumber trade, and building bridges with the railroad companies, bringing home supplies to his wife and child. Then there are portions of the book that almost read like Mark Twain, in tall tales and stories such as the man shot by his dog, a journey with a Model T and a pair of horses, and the mysterious wolf girl. The changes in atmosphere coincide with the passage of time, moving from a simpler time to a more complicated modern age.

The novel is cleft in two by the catastrophic fire that devastates the valley where Grainier makes his home. There is only before the fire; and after.

Grainier is a sympathetic, moving character who would not want my pity or my concern. He is a self sufficient man of the last century, who rode in a biplane but, as Johnson says, never spoke on the telephone.

Train Dreams is deceptively simple. There are scenes that I will play over in my mind again and again, trying to find the meaning or symbolism. The last paragraph of this novel reduced me to tears, and I am not sure why. Perhaps because the naked emotions of longing and pain were perfectly communicated without any device or trick.

I highly recommend this novel. And, here’s the bonus. If you don’t agree with me, you haven’t wasted much time. Johnson has managed to pack the emotional impact of a family epic into a novella of only 116 pages. Read this book.

Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Train Dreams: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/books/review/train-dreams-by-denis-johnson-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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