Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Dreaming Of Trains On Interstate 80
I’m sorry, July. I failed you. Five mediocre blog posts (and one great one by Kayla!) and it was my laziest month on record since…well, since May. As is always my excuse: I’ve been busy! Recently, I’ve had tons of things to do, including a fantastic camping trip to the far flat reaches of eastern Ohio. I wish I could say that I salvaged some artistic shreds of insight from that trip (as I did with Boston and my visit to the MFA [which I have yet to write about!]), but I didn’t run into any art museums on my journey along I-80.
You know—it was mostly rolling green hills and rain and semis with their running lights bristling like giant diesel-powered Christmas trees. The only thing noteworthy of Pueblo Waltz that occurred on the journey to and from was the lovely interlude of reading Denis Johnson’s all-too-brief novel(la) Train Dreams.
Recently announced as one of three novels on the shortlist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (there was no winner), I felt that I had to dig into Johnson’s short book because a) why not read something short-listed for the Pulitzer? and b) it clocked in at just over 100 sparsely-texted pages. As it turns out, there might have been nothing more appropriate than sitting down in a family diner in middle-of-nowhere, Pennsylvania to chow down on a combination of omelet, steak, and hash browns than Johnson’s cozy little book.
The novella focuses on the life of Robert Grainier, a laborer in the Pacific Northwest during the first half of the 20th-century. Part of me feels that explaining any of the details of Grainier’s hardscabble existence would be spoiling some of the joy of reading about them. The other joy of the novella is Johnson’s exacting language, which resides somewhere between the concision of Hemingway and the whip-tight prose of Annie Proulx.
Indeed, there is something of “Big Two-Hearted River”-era Nick Adams in Johnson’s Grainier, who is quiet and steadfast and concentrates mighty hard on the mundane tasks of day-by-day frontier life. Sprinkled within the chronicle of Grainier's tough life (logging, helping build railroads, feeding himself) there are places in the text where Johnson’s language crackles with descriptive brilliance. One of the most delightful passages is when a middle-aged Grainier looks out across a sunset landscape in the Pacific Northwest:
“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 there were mountains enough for everybody to get his own” (Johnson 112).
In that way, Train Dreams has a literary firepower similar to another American western epic, Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It. Both books revel in the brazen storytelling of a simple tale and the intricate way that language can be molded around it. Highly recommended for a summer highway read.
Posted by Taylor J. Coe at 8:31 PM