Train Dreams

The other night I was working late, and trying to shift my mind and wind down for sleep, I ended up fishing Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” out of a pile of unread books.

What a book! I finished it that night, reading in one big gulp. The whole experience felt dreamlike and strange, and I found myself staring at the cover: a simple black and white landscape by Thomas Hart Benton of a horse racing a train. I’m still a bit under its spell.

I don’t think there’s anyone like Johnson for beautiful writing that feels somehow tossed off and vernacular. The most gorgeous sentences go past almost without you even noticing how perfect they are. The other thing – to me, his books feel so truly American. It’s the poetry they make of landscape, violence, work, and mysticism.

A long thaw had come earlier in the month. The snow was melted out of the ruts. Bare earth showed off in the woods. But now, again, the weather was freezing, and Grainier hoped he wouldn’t end up bringing in a corpse dead of the cold.

In this scene, Robert Grainier, the main character, is transporting a man who’s been shot in the shoulder by his dog (it’s a long story). It’s a brilliant miniature of absurdity and awe – kind of like “Emergency” in Jesus’s Son.

Grainier disliked the shadows, the spindly silhouettes of birch trees, and the clouds strung around the yellow half-moon. It all seemed designed to frighten the child in him. “Sir, are you dead?” he asked Peterson.

“Who? Me? Nope. Alive,” said Peterson.

I usually distrust short books, often feeling that their writers are trying to palm something off not properly formed. Or, with dread, I anticipate they will be overly poetical, though not with the rigor of actual poems. And I’ll get into it – make the investment and commitment you do with any book – only to discover there’s not much there. (Maybe this is my problem with tapas restaurants.) But reading “Train Dreams” I realized there is another category of short books – books that would be worse for being longer, books that somehow perfectly compress something huge and large as life into a small form.

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