Train Dreams is one of those books that has seemed to crop up on “Best of” lists at the end of each year for the last few years. I first had the chance to read Denis Johnson in graduate school when I was assigned to read Fiskadoro for a class on the post-modern Twentieth century novel; it was a chance I didn’t take. I was much more interested in reading short stories at the time, and my interest in getting a PhD was starting to dwindle as I realized that none of my friends who were close to completing their degrees were getting job offers and that much of my time and energy would be less devoted to reading and writing what I liked and more to finding ways to say things about literature that either probably didn’t need to be said or would be said in better ways by somebody else.
Nevertheless, I’ve carted Fiskadoro around for the last twenty-three years, sure that I’ll get to it at some point. The chances look better this year than ever before, however, since I made Train Dreams my first book of 2019 and was stunned by this beautifully haunted (and haunting) narrative of the American West. The novella’s protagonist, Robert Grainier, works a variety of jobs across Montana and Washington State, including logging and hauling. He was sent to the Northwest Territories (specifically Idaho) as a child from either Utah or Canada to live with his aunt and uncle, although he has no recall of his early life or how he came to be in his present place. He doesn’t know exactly how old he is. Instead, he relies on accounts of himself from his cousins, even as those accounts differ completely from each other. In his thirties he takes a wife and they have a daughter, but while he’s away working a great fire consumes the valley where their small cabin resides. When he returns the land is devastated, his family gone. He returns to the land as it begins to recover, living first in an old canvas tent and then rebuilding a small cabin in the footprint of the former. He works in the area hauling goods and doing odd jobs for the rest of his life. At night, he howls with the wolves. He flies once in an airplane at a county fair. He sees a train carrying Elvis, watches the interstate being built. He never sees the ocean or speaks on a telephone. He never remarries.
All his life Robert Grainier would remember the vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking–the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of the Brussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.
The story is non-linear and made up more of anecdotes about Grainier’s encounters and dreams than anything that shows an arc across his almost eighty years. Things happen to Grainier, and while he’s certainly affected he remains largely unchanged throughout his life. He’s an everyman, in a sense, and also a reminder that even the smallest lives can be full of wonder. About fifteen years ago I worked with a person who had gone from Atlanta to visit some relatives in northern Alabama, and I remember him telling me that several of them had never experienced technological advances that we took for granted: microwave ovens, for example, and ATMs. They could not fathom walking up to a machine and having it dispense cash. This was 2005. I say this not to make fun, nor to point out how backwards things can still be in the American South. I bring this up because I find it so interesting how easy it is to exalt lives like these in literature, and then so easily forget they still exist in real life until they come upon us in such ugly ways, like the 2016 election. These are people who are poor and largely forgotten, living in deeply rural areas in flyover states. In 2011 when this book was published it would have read as a dream or an allegory. Today I read it and wonder, how did it all go so wrong? The ugliest comments I’ve seen would say these people should simply die, and that is most likely what will happen, as they are either blocked from services that can offer help or refuse those services outright when they are available. But in literature they remind us they should not be discounted, that the circumstances of their lives bring them to experience the world in a very particular way that makes sense to them. This, ultimately, is why a book like Train Dreams is so important, not just for its beautiful language, for its particular account of the American West, but to remind us of the humanity, to remind us to stop and consider lives so wholly different from our own, something that seems harder to do in our own country but easy to afford to those from elsewhere. How do we begin to change that world? What is the new story America must tell itself, even as these dreams remain?