Imagine a piece of driftwood, something of a size, with heft to it, something you’d have to hold in two hands. The driftwood is lined in places, rough to the touch, curiously smooth elsewhere, its shape made strange by years, possibly, of being washed by the sea. The strangest thing about the piece of driftwood, however, is where you find it; not, as you might expect, emerging from a bank of sand but by a train track. Scrutinising the mystery of a piece of driftwood found in a strange place is somewhat akin to reading Denis Johnson’s latest novel, Train Dreams.
Opening in the summer of 1917 as Robert Grainier, a day labourer on the construction of a train track who will at various times work in the lumber and the freight trade, is caught up with the attempted murder of a young Chinese man accused of stealing. In later years, as he finds himself caught up in a tragedy himself, a tragedy that he finds it understandably hard to shake free of, Grainier wonders if the Chinaman cursed him. Grainier is the kind of man who works with his hand, the kind of man familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy, the kind of man who likes to disappear in groups of other men, at least as a young man, a man who becomes something of a hermit as he grows older. We step back and glimpse a little of Grainier’s childhood, although there is much that remains obscure both to the reader and Grainier himself, and flit forward, through his courtship of Gladys, to their eventual marriage. Returning home, he finds a terrible fire has raged throughout the community in which he and Gladys have built their home and Grainier loses everything he has. The heart of the book lies in what comes next, as Grainier attempts to rebuild his home and his life, a piece forever lost, a new man, given to howling in concert with the distant packsong of wolves, forged in the process.
In a great many ways, Train Dreams feels unlike previous Denis Johnson novels. At the same time, however, most Denis Johnson novels feel unlike preceding Denis Johnson novels. What sets Train Dreams apart is a lucid wisdom, a sense of perspective, a warm sustaining familiarity in the same ballpark as Richard Ford’s Canada. Although it’s being marketed as a ‘new’ novel, it originally appeared within the Paris Review some eight years ago – but this doesn’t hurt Train Dreams a jot. Stretching from the tail end of the nineteenth century up into the 60s, the novel unravels like a fable, the prose sharp and clean, the construction brilliant and surprising. Peripheral characters float by, recur, pass on their awkward visionary wisdom and depart; often animals seem to play as important a part in the novel as people. Although fused of largely disparate elements, the resolution of Grainier’s tragedy is as strange and fantastical as anything Johnson has written before. Given the brevity of the tale (Train Dreams clocks in at just over 100 pages), this is a book you can read, savouring every perfectly placed word, in an afternoon – and it will be an afternoon very well spent.
Any Cop?: Johnson fans will need no recommendation but Train Dreams is perhaps the best introduction to the writer new fans will need.