Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

[I decided to read this novella in two halves. I wrote about the first half before reading the second.]

4 March 2018
Chapters 1-4
Train Dreams is the third book recently that has made me wonder about the choices the author has made. Both the others, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Roddy Doyle’s Smile are first-person novels narrated by characters who are also writers, so there’s immediately a self-consciousness about how they do it. This one is different. Robert Grainier doesn’t narrate it, but it soon becomes clear that language is not a precise science for him. He left school as soon as he reached his teens, having to be content with basic reading and arithmetic. Having the skill to ‘decipher writing on a page’ is as literary as he’s ever going to get—so Denis Johnson, well-known as a stylist, has his work cut out. How to find the right words to convey the experiences of the book’s only main character when this man’s own store of words is so small?

He does it brilliantly. The narrative voice is a hybrid, Grainier’s own language and mindset combined with passages of pared-down description that a man like him couldn’t even attempt. At random: ‘The real grease-monkey … moved along before the team of horses with a bucket of dogfish oil, slathering it across the skids with a swab of burlap to keep the huge logs sliding.’ There are no words here that Grainier wouldn’t understand, but Johnson makes it almost cinematic. Later, a landscape made desolate by fire is described even more graphically: ‘It had gutted the valley along its entire length like a campfire in a ditch. All his life Robert Grainier would remember the burned valley at sundown, the most dream-like business he’d ever witnessed waking – the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, … others ribbed and grey and pink.’ Johnson seamlessly moves into a different mode with those ‘brilliant pastels’, but it works. The poetry has already started with the dreaminess, and we don’t even notice the shift. And straight after that we’re back to monosyllables.

The mindset. We don’t know who it belongs to at first, so it’s anybody’s and everybody’s in the railway work-camp. Here are the simple certainties of white men a century ago, and a vocabulary to fit the time. A so-called Chinaman accused of theft is ‘jabbering’ in his ‘sing-song’ voice, and it’s a matter of routine for the boss to decide to throw him off the bridge. Grainier, working on his first bridge while World War 1 is happening half a world away, is pressed into helping the men subdue the struggling man. He can’t really shape the thought, but he’s uneasy about it. It doesn’t stop him wanting to kill him in the excitement and terror of the moment, but after they fail in the attempt his only lasting concern is over the curse the man uttered before his escape. He is haunted by what might come of the curse for a long time afterwards, but… that evening he goes home to his wife Gladys and infant daughter, buying a bottle of sarsaparilla on the way to comfort Gladys as she nurses a cold. She and the child both have a case of the salt rheum, but they know they’ll be over it soon. It’s already a routine in the little family’s life.

The afternoon and evening become the first of many episodes, often containing some sort of epiphany that sends Grainier’s life in a different direction. The tone is almost anecdotal, so it’s fine for this storyteller to loop back in time to fill in some details. In his teens Grainier is a drifter until he meets a dying man in the woods. Before that – or after, it doesn’t really matter – we’ve found out that as a child he was put on a train to where his uncle, aunt and cousins lived. His own parents were dead but, as he tells us another time, by the time he thought about asking where he was from – his cousins offer him wildly different accounts – he is almost an adult and his aunt and uncle are dead. Denis Johnson leaves it to the reader to piece together the bigger narrative of why Grainier might instinctively look to men with some kind of authority to show him the way. He doesn’t exactly seek out father-figures, but it’s an old hobo who accidentally brings his drifting to an end, and a manager who involves him in trying to throw the Chinese thief to his death. Clearly, as the main story begins he still hasn’t found his own way.

Something needs to happen, and it does. The almost unthinking transition he had been able to make from casual worker to married man – you can imagine the easy-going, straightforward courtship of a woman we learn very little about because, presumably, he never does – has taught him nothing much. But he picks up an elementary understanding of the simple facts of life on what had been frontier territory until the recent past. He is able to buy an acre of land suitable for a cabin and a smallholding, knows how to build it… and so on.

But things move on. Grainier, after more work on the railways, tries a life of logging. It’s hard, but the money’s good, and he spends the whole of a summer in the forest away from his wife and baby girl. But that’s ok, isn’t it? He’s earned himself $400, and he’s ready to get back to the cabin when the time comes…

…but no—he never sees it again. I mentioned that forest fire earlier on, and it’s one he slowly, over something like two days, realises has taken everything from him. He gets to the nearest railway town, crowded with people who have escaped from the fire with a few possessions. Only people who came that way have survived—and his wife and baby daughter aren’t there. Johnson handles the dawning of Grainier’s terrible understanding brilliantly. He sets off on a 20-mile walk through a blackened landscape, with the trees becoming ever more recently burnt, still smoking and cracking. Eventually he can go no further because of the heat, but he can’t yet admit to himself that Kate and the baby couldn’t possibly have survived. He gets as far as a neighbour’s former homestead, where nothing remains but shapeless heaps of ash, a pile of chimney-stones, and a half-buried stove warped by the heat.

What’s a man to do? He returns to the town and, after a few days, buys enough supplies for materials for a makeshift shelter. He knows what to expect when he goes back to his own place, and that’s what he finds. Inside their stove is an only partially burnt log. ‘Kate,’ he says—and it’s the only thing she once handled that he’s ever likely to find. He stays a while in a makeshift lean-to, but the arrival of autumn signals it will soon be too cold. He spends the winter in the town… and the following spring he knows what to take—including chickens and a goat. He knows how to do this, builds the walls of a new cabin, its logs stripped of their bark by the flames and reeking of the burnt forest. He starts to piece together a makeshift kind of life and, with trips back to the town, he manages until it gets cold again and it’s time to kill the chickens and goat for food.

These are the practicalities of his first year after the catastrophe and, whilst neither he nor Denis Johnson says it, we have to believe that they must help to keep him sane. So does a little stray dog that arrives early on—although it’s a particular kind of sanity that has Grainier teaching its only remaining pup how to howl like a wolf. He isn’t harming anybody, and nor does his certainty that he catches glimpses of Kate, whose presence he often feels. There were never any remains for him to grieve over, of course, so it isn’t hard to understand—nor when he sees her bonnet being blown by the wind over the homestead.

As for his howling like a wolf…. All the little dog’s pups look like wolves and only the weakest doesn’t run off as soon as it can. Grainier speculates that their father must have been a wolf, but Kootenai Bob, an Indian in town—there’s no such thing as a Native American in this universe—casts doubt on the idea. But… he concedes that it might just happen in the right circumstances. It’s enough for Grainier.

It’s the final death out of the chapter, that of Kootenai Bob, that turns out to be the last story in it. Years after the main events of the chapter, some Canadians in town convince Bob that the lemonade in the shandy they give him neutralises the alcohol content. He drinks himself into incontinence and, eventually, unconsciousness. Unluckily, he decides to lie down to sleep across the railway tracks. Next day, his people collect the pieces, spread over a quarter-mile stretch of track, in decorated pouches, ‘which they must have taken off somewhere and buried with fitting ceremony.’ There’s no irony in the way Johnson tells it. They do what anybody would do.

16 March
Second half—Chapters 5-9
Grainier’s life shuffles along, taking its time, while Johnson lets time itself loop back to fill in occasional sparkling details of our man’s self-imposed near-exile from the world. Meanwhile, the world isn’t going away—although it slowly develops into something new and strange. At a literal level, the forest never returns to its former state, with less robust jack-pines growing in place of the majestic spruces of old. The ecology is different, and so are the animals. The wolves he hears sound ever further away, and the animals that stay are smaller. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a few rabbits.

Meanwhile, even further away than the wolves, the 20th Century moves on. It’s the l920s for a long time—things happen slowly in these parts—then the 30s…. The Depression must have reached the far Northwest, but if it reaches Grainier he doesn’t quite notice. The cycles up here are all of nature, the inevitable annual turn of the seasons and the longer-term ravages his summers of logging have taken on his body. When he’s ‘nearer forty’ than 35, he’s a mess. His knees crack loudly under any strain, and his shoulder is prone to locking so fast that only another man, his foot on his back and pulling his arm with all his strength, can wrench it into place. You really don’t want to hear the noise it makes—and don’t ask about the blow to the jaw that makes eating so uncomfortable he’s skinny for the rest of his life. He has given up logging by now, gets money by hauling stuff with a wagon and two horses he pays for over years, and lives in his second cabin for as long as the weather allows every year.

This is the literal level, even if Johnson allows it to be locked into a frontier mythology of American self-reliance, hard work, and neighbours who help each other out but are never anybody’s friends. The frontier is disappearing, of course—those wolves aren’t leaving just to look for a change of scenery—and, a long way beneath the surface, there’s the hint of an elegiac tone. More interestingly, with some help from the stories of the local Kootenai tribe and superstitious white men, Grainier finds a more personal mythology taking shape around him. As these later chapters go on, the everyday reality of the cabin and Grainier’s different jobs can suddenly be transformed, quite seamlessly, into a world of folk-tale and myth. Often, as when his dead wife appears to him, once, to let him know exactly how she died—and how their daughter survived—there’s no boundary at all. He’s as certain of the truth of her story as if he’d seen it himself.

This is different from the first half of Train Dreams—and, simply by writing it out, I realise that the title yokes together these two opposite elements. Opposite, but entirely a part of each other. As though to remind us that this is no fairy-tale world, Johnson has some of Grainier’s most visionary dreams incorporate the roar of the night train that ends up waking him. But that only happens a couple of times or so, and sometimes he really could be in the magical forest worlds of Central Europe’s oldest tales. His vision of his wife is like that, and so is the night when a wolf-pack streams across his acre of land. They brush past him as he stands just inside the door, and leave one of their number behind, a short distance from him. It’s a wounded—what? Not a wolf, but part-human… and it dawns on him that this is the mythical girl-wolf he’s heard stories of two or three chapters back. He makes his way towards it, his lantern casting a black shadow back towards the cabin, and we’re into the nightmare expressionist reality of early European cinema….

…which might be another way of describing how Johnson will use language in whatever ways will take the reader inside what is now, sometimes, an uncanny world. He goes much further than he does in earlier descriptions like that of the burnt-out valley, in which the factual morphs into a sense of wonder at sights never seen before. It doesn’t happen often to Grainier now, but when it does, the wonderment is of a different order of magnitude. He knows immediately what, or who, the wolves have left behind. ‘Before his mind could say “these are wolves come into my yard,” they were gone. All but one. And she was the wolf-girl.’

And for the next four pages, until the moment when she leaps out of his window next morning, tearing with her teeth at the splint he has made for her, every single bit of Johnson’s description is factual. The reader has no option but to accept that a girl brought up with wolves would be exactly like this, ‘a clearly human creature with the delicate structure of a little girl, but she was bent in the arms and legs….’ This is a first impression. After he treats her broken leg—knowing, of course, that she is his daughter Kate—he can get a good look at her. ‘She was as leathery as an old man. Her hands were curled under, the back of her wrists calloused stumps, her feet misshapen, as hard and knotted as wooden burls.’ But it’s the animal inside that’s most disturbing of all. ‘What was it about her face that seemed so wolflike, so animal, even as she slept? He couldn’t say. The face just seemed to have no life behind it when the eyes were closed. As if the creature would have no thoughts other than what it saw.’

As before, Johnson uses no words that would not be in Grainier’s vocabulary…. Except when he does. For a sentence or so as he approaches her the first time, and again as he carries her back, we’re into that expressionist, nightmare vision of blackness. He is ‘made nervous by his own monstrous shadow, so huge it filled the whole clearing behind him. Frost had built on the dead grass, and it skirled beneath his feet….’ After he has tried to fathom whatever has happened –‘He simply knew. This was his daughter’—he ‘turned with her in his embrace and made for the cabin, now walking away from the lamplight and thus towards his own monstrous shadow as it engulfed his home and shrank magically as he approached.’ There are worlds of meaning in that ‘embrace’, and in the shadow’s magical effects. This is no fairy-tale. This is literary fiction at its most ambitious.

Nothing much happens to Grainier in the 40-odd years between his forced retirement from the logging trade and his death in the 1960s. Almost laconically, Johnson chooses to list the key points. ‘He’d had one lover—his wife, Gladys—owned one acre of property, owned two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.’ And so on. But there are other high (or low) points, each described over several pages. The ride he makes in a two-seater plane as a one-off celebration of his final pay-off, described from the start as such a mistake it sends him straight home. The final chapter, after the wolf-girl’s flight and before that factual inventory of his life, opens with eight pages describing ‘a short season of sensual lust greater than any he had experienced as a younger man.’ This is a decade and more after Gladys’s death and is steeped in the almost bathetic highlights of the burlesque show being publicised in the town he visits, not knowing quite why, one Sunday.

Nothing at all comes of it, despite the two tortured weeks during which he counts the days to the show. ‘He kept no calendar, but in his very loins he marked the moments until Thursday, August 22.’ (Is this the first actual date mentioned in the book? It might be.) He never sees the show, deciding that if he goes into the town on that day, everybody will know where he is going. It’s more bathos, including his raising of the show’s ‘Miss Galveston’ to a height of unbearable ‘Pulchritude’, a word on the publicity poster that comes to mean everything low and animal in himself. ‘His desires must be completely out of nature; he was the kind of man who might couple with a beast, or—as he’d long ago heard it phrased—jigger himself a cow.’ How to stop himself becoming ‘the President of Pulchritude’?

It’s the land that saves him. He skirts the town, making a long walk into the mountains. At sunset, ‘he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the world were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds….’ And only a page after this: ‘he did at last get himself a dog’—to replace at last the one he’d taught to howl all those years ago—‘who was his friend for many years.’ A single page covers the whole of the rest of his life. Except…

…at a circus, on the day he buys the dog, there is an act purporting to be a wolf-boy. The audience is no more fooled by him than they were by the tricks of ‘the Wonder Horse’ who could do simple tricks any one of them could have taught it. After a few moments, the mocking laughter starts. ‘But they hushed, all at once and quite abruptly, when he stood stock-still at centre stage…. Nobody present had ever seen anyone stand so still and yet so strangely mobile.’ This is the middle of the long final paragraph in the book, and we’re in the strangest realm of all. The wolf-boy ‘opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it….’ It goes on and on in a single long sentence, until: suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.’

What time? We don’t know, because that’s how the book ends. But we can guess—and I realise that what I’d called the hint of an elegiac tone is there in these final words. It’s nothing as trite as a nostalgia for the lonely, self-reliant routines of a life close to nature. It’s an understanding that in knowing so much, living in a world where the default doctrine—it’s reached the status of a creed—is that nothing exists that can’t be explained, something irrecoverable has been lost. ‘That time,’ when there were other ways of thinking that we would now simply dismiss, is ‘gone forever.’

Yep. And I should know.

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