Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Worth a Second Look

I'm taking another run at Denis Johnson. I tried before with “Tree of Smoke” and I just couldn't get out of the starting blocks. Maybe I just wasn't ready to tackle a Viet Nam novel, and somehow it seemed so very male. I gave up early. But I always feel a little guilty when I abandon a book. So when I saw Johnson's new novella Train Dreams (short read!) I decided to try again. I'm so glad I did.

The story is simple (and still quite male) – it follows the life of Robert Grainier, an orphaned boy who works on logging crews in the Northwest in his youth, loses his wife and child to a wildfire, and lives out his life in a remote cabin in Idaho where his only company is wolves, coyotes and the sound of the train's whistle as it passes through the valley two miles below him. He makes a modest living using his horse cart for hauling, and rides the train to Bonners Ferry when he's in need of supplies or human contact.

Doesn't sound like much of a story? In Johnson's hands it becomes a spare, honest portrait of a man's life. Grainier's existence is basic, but his connection to nature is powerful and profound, and Johnson slips effortlessly from the simple declarative sentences that describe Grainier's unadorned life, including the occasional humorous encounter with an odd assortment of characters peculiar to the isolated West, to the evocative dream-like descriptions of his experience of the force and mystery of the natural world.

You can read this entire book on a plane ride or on a rainy afternoon. I hope you will find it as powerful and absorbing as I did.

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