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#154: TOWNS, TRAINS, WILDERNESS AND A LIFE.

August 20, 2019

#154. TOWNS, TRAINS, WILDERNESS, AND A LIFE.  In Denis Johnson’s 2011 novella Train Dreams (Farrar, Strauss) the elements work so beautifully together as to seem almost mysterious.  You can’t quite tell why it works, or how the entranced tone of remembering is so perfectly sustained.   Its hundred-odd pages tell the life story of Robert Grainier, a laborer in the northern Midwest; like most lives, the story is almost plotless, shaped by long sustained scenes that bring the interstices in the story along with them by implication.  Characters come and go, concisely etched; laconic passages of dialogue, the story of a man who gets shot by his dog or a marriage proposal to a flinty and uninterested widow, are marvels of deadpan that may edge off into something genuinely frightening: “I’m saying it gets dark, and the moon gets full, and there’s creatures God did not create.”  There are passages where the prose raises itself into almost a kind of magical realism, but there’s also something settled, calm and unflappable that we recognize as purely American.  I can’t think of another story I’ve read in which the American place names chime with such evocative music and its natural descriptions are so fresh and splendid; I can’t think of many others which, for all its acknowledgement of the tragic and painful, are so entirely free of cheap flash or labored effects.  Train Dreams begins with an act of racist violence narrowly averted; its ending, a vulgar traveling show that suddenly gets a few wondrous steps off the ground of reality, is so beautiful it leaves you dazed.  Near the end of the story, Johnson describes Grainier going to the Methodist church in town:  “People spoke nicely to him there, people recognized him from the days when he’d attended almost regularly with Gladys, but generally he regretted going.  He very often wept in church.  Living up in the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man.  When the hymns began, he remembered.”  Reading Train Dreams, you forget you’re a sad man.

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