Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

[I’m reading this novella in two halves. I’ve read the first half so far, and I don’t know what will come next.]

4 December 2017
Chapters 1-4
Train Dreams is the third book in a row 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 this one, 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 what the narrator calls [numbers etc.] 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 them to contemplate throwing 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 become 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 ready to get back when the time comes….