Train Dreams
Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Train Dreams baffled me so that when I got done with it I turned back and started all over again. I am still baffled, but I think that is probably the feeling one is left with when you know something is good (perhaps great), but you are not exactly sure how or why it is so.

On the surface it is Grainier's story of being left off as a youngster in Fry, Idaho in 1890 or so ---- never having known father nor mother --- growing up with cousins in the panhandle with the trains and the loggers and the Indians (who they consulted) and the Chinese (who they tried to run out of town) and, when he is thirty, meeting with Gladys and moving her to his lot outside of town.

When he is off doing construction or logging, one of those great fires that used to storm through the Pacific Northwest comes through and consumes his hand-built shack and poor Gladys and sweet baby Kate.

Grainier goes back to rebuild on the lot and this is just the bare-bones story but there is something else going on here, a lyric story of early 20th Century America told with loving care and you can't exactly figure out how Johnson does it: Is it the disjointed flow of the narrative? Is it the laconic speech of the times? Is it a vocabulary mixed with such style that --- long after the fire took his child and his love with it --- Grainier can be lying by the river, and "his eye caught on a quick thing up above, flying along the river? "He looks, and saw his wife Glady's white bonnet sailing past overhead. Just sailing past."

    He stayed on for weeks in this camp, waiting, wanting many more such visions as that of the bonnet .... as many as wanted to come to him; and he figured as long as he saw impossible things in this place, and liked them, might as well be in the habit of talking to himself, too. Many times each day he found himself deflating on a gigantic sigh and saying, "A pretty mean circumstance!" He thought he'd better be up and doing things so as not to sigh quite as much.

It is this writing touching lightly on the beautiful horrible tales of life (being orphaned; finding love; losing love; getting balmy) that makes Train Dreams so compelling. Love and loss and death and lust, all tied into the glorious country in this great complex of the great Northwest, the land in which our story is nested ... the forests and rivers and mountains which had to be fought and laid in peace.

At the end of Grainier's story, he passes a theatre in Bonners Ferry showing a daring movie called Sins of Love (this is all pre-WWII) which sweeps him "through a disorienting fog of desire." "The filthiest demons of his nature beset him ... to inhale the fumes of sex, sin, pulchritude." (I had to look that one up: it means "physical comeliness." )

What might be comic or crude in another author's hands is, with Johnson's alchemy, turned pure. And Grainier will survive, tested as fully as Gilgamesh, or Dante, or Faust. He climbs into the mountain country, finds himself above Spruce Lake, "and now he looked down on it hundreds of feet below him, its flat surface as still and black as obsidian, engulfed in the shadow of surrounding cliffs, ringed with a double ring of evergreens and reflected evergreens ... Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds."

    He'd never seen so grand a prospect. The forests that filled his life were so thickly populous and so tall that generally they blocked him from seeing how far away the world was, but right now it seemed clear there were mountains enough for everybody to get his own.

At that moment, he comes free of his past, the curse of the past that runs all of us, moving on to where "the curse had left him, and the contagion of his lust had drifted off and settled into one of those distant valleys."

--- C. A. Amantea
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