Book Review: Denis Johnson’s Beautiful, Haunting “Train Dreams”

In Train Dreams the world of beauty and terror is balanced as only our best writers have been able to balance those things.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 128 pages, $18.

By Anthony Wallace

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a beautiful, haunting novella, a version of which was published nine years ago in The Paris Review. The book has been published in a handsome hardcover edition, black and white cover with grayscale illustration, on the back flyleaf a picture of Johnson wearing aviator sunglasses and sitting in a rocking chair against the backdrop of a cinderblock wall—as if Johnson has retired to a prison yard where, on this occasion, somebody has let him get comfy for a final interview before he is electrocuted.

The illustration on the front cover shows a horse and a telegraph line and a train, the tableau pulled out and retro-dreamy, an image we might expect to see as an invitation to the world of Denis Johnson. Above Johnson’s name and the title of the book is printed “Winner of the National Book Award.” Train Dreams is not a winner of the National Book Award, as an uninformed reader might be led to assume, but Johnson is—for the novel A Tree of Smoke three years ago—and it is no doubt for this reason that Johnson got to bring his novella out in such a nifty package, a real hardcover book with real American LIT’RATURE between the covers, just like in the good old days. Johnson’s book causes us to be nostalgic in a few different ways: for the last-century quality of his prose; for the bygone times of the story itself; for the almost bygone era of book publishing, or so something about this enterprise seems to suggest.

Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier, “a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in ordinary times,” as the text on the front flyleaf informs us. I would add that Grainier’s story is the story of an ordinary man told in an extraordinary way in extraordinarily spare yet magical prose, and that some of Johnson’s best writing is on display here. It is a book of wonders both real and imagined, of great locomotives that traversed the continent and sawmills that conquered the big woods, of a curse by a persecuted “Chinaman” that (perhaps) brings destruction on Grainier’s wife and daughter and their little cabin in the woods, a great fire Grainier would remember his entire life, like something Biblical in modern times. As with Johnson’s best work, the prose and the story itself start out in a realistic way, plain and serious but with a little smirk, and then take us someplace else: the plainness becomes poetic; the seriousness becomes hallucinatory, as if to say that we should take serious things seriously, but that it is also more complicated than merely taking them seriously; and the smirk–the smirk of a saint who finally has achieved religious ecstasy and who smirks because he knows he was right all along.

I smirked quite a few times because of Johnson’s wonderfully off-kilter humor, which is a common thread throughout his fiction and which in this book includes frontier humor about a hapless Indian named Kootenai Bob whom reviewers have either ignored or told us to ignore as a small, politically incorrect shortcoming of the book, but which is part of how Johnson conjures up the past. All the information is filtered through Grainier in a subtle, understated use of free indirect discourse, and it is Grainier’s consciousness and how that consciousness behaves as a lens through which we look at the past that Johnson wants us to look at. This is Grainier’s time, and his story, and as he inhabits the book, we inhabit him, although most of what we know about him on the inside is achieved indirectly, suggestively, the way a good old-fashioned Hemingway disciple would conjure his main character. Grainier is a kind of orphan who comes at an early age to live with his father’s mother and her husband and children. “All three of his cousins agreed Grainier had come on a train. How had he lost his original parents? Nobody ever told him.” Grainier’s life is a mystery from start to finish, a sort of blank space that he fills in and that we fill in with him. At the core of such fiction is the conviction that our lives will remain essentially mysterious to us—that as human beings we don’t know what we are and cannot grasp our own experience. In the character of Robert Granier, though, Johnson seems to be suggesting that we need not understand our own lives in order to live them, enjoy them, fully inhabit them–and also that we might take some comfort in that, if in anything at all.

Johnson is indeed a very good Hemingway disciple, perhaps even a great one, and that is another reason for me to smirk: that the Old Man with his “old black magic,” as Updike called it, is still alive and well in contemporary fiction—which I suppose is to say, among other things, that the “true simple declarative sentence” is alive and well here, as in the work of Cormac McCarthy and others still working in that rich and magnetic tradition. In fact, this is a book that might have been written by McCarthy, not just in the spare but heightened poeticism of the prose, to say nothing of its stark masculinity—sinew firmly attached to bone, blood coursing relentlessly but under control—but in its subject of an ordinary man who lives and dies in almost complete obscurity but whose life is fleshed out and affirmed not just for value but for decidedly spiritual value—a value which is constantly registered and qualified and made visible in the prose itself. Johnson’s most interesting characters are spiritual seekers, as are McCarthy’s, as are those of that great Irish Catholic Madonna of American fiction, Flannery O’Connor. Johnson is certainly in this school, which also takes some of its influence from Faulkner, including prominent flourishes of the gothic and grotesque, and it is wonderful to see someone these days not only writing in a “school,” but doing it with great originality—even if that school belongs to the previous century, or perhaps especially because of that.

It is also wonderful to see a writer writing about spiritual things in a way that is witty but not apologetic or corrosively ironic. Jeffrey Eugenides in a recent interview said something to the effect that religion is woefully absent in the contemporary novel. What an intelligent thing to say, and how brave and necessary to say it! But Johnson is writing in an American literary tradition that does consider religion and spirituality as important subjects, as final things to write about in considering the mysterious finality of our own existences. Johnson called his novel Already Dead a “California Gothic,” as if to remind us that the Gothic is always pointing us in the direction of the other world, and that he’s doing it California style. If Fuckhead in Jesus’ Son is a heroin addict, it’s because he wants transcendence, good old American-grained Emersonian transcendence—and he seems to get it, too. And if Granier is an oddball sort of orphan who spends most of his life living alone in the woods, it is because he is a “hermit” in the religious sense, an anchorite waiting for a final important sign—even if he doesn’t quite know he’s doing it or what he’s waiting for. A widow his friend Eddie is courting explains that, “‘God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit. Did you ever think about that?’ ‘I don’t believe I am a hermit,’ Grainier replied, but when the day was over, he went off asking himself, Am I a hermit? Is that what a hermit is?”

As O’Connor might say, he is a character who goes out to confront Good and Evil, to confront the possibility of Grace—even if he doesn’t quite know it. “At home in the woods, the filthiest demons of his nature beset him.” Like a McCarthy character who is afraid of the “outer dark” both because he knows thing are lurking out there, and because he knows they aren’t, he is a man who is always searching for a clean, well-lighted place. Granier is also a bit like McCarthy’s “Kid” in Blood Meridian, living in times so different from ours on the surface that they seem mythic, as the Devil himself is considered mythic by some but not all. Once upon a time Old Nick was real, this line of thinking goes, and once upon a time the characters and events in this book were real, and the people reading about them were real, too. There is a wonderful tipping point in Train Dreams at which Grainier and his world turn from real life people and things into myth, into the long ago, into stuff left stored not even in a book but only, somehow and strangely, in the human imagination. It is finally the world of Hawthorne that Johnson returns us to, the dark persistent strain in American literature that never quite goes away, perhaps because it is about those dark persistent things in ourselves that never quite go away. Goodman Brown and Hester Prynne also spent time in the woods, don’t forget.

Denis Johnson —his prose has the smirk of a saint who finally has achieved religious ecstasy and who smirks because he knows he was right all along.

I read Train Dreams and wrote the preceding paragraphs a month ago; life intervened, I came back today to finish the job. The novella one month after the reading experience is, as I wrote in my first sentence, beautiful and haunting, but is so in a way that is peculiarly ephemeral. I looked through my notes and remembered certain scenes I’d taken the trouble to underline, and they came back to me vividly–but I would not have remembered them without going back to the text. The book did not deposit within me certain unforgettable images as the sum total of my experience of reading it—as McCarthy’s books always do, for example. How could I in only one month forget the wolf-boy! That might be due to the slightness of the book, not a novel but a novella, the least traveled fictional road, and it might very well be what distinguishes Johnson from the giants I’ve compared him to, but it might also be what makes Johnson’s work particularly and peculiarly his own. The world he creates is the real world but always teetering on hallucination, on myth, on turning into something other than its plain, concrete, realistic surface. It is the world on the verge of spiritual transcendence and illumination, and it is the world on the verge of nothingness. It is the world we know and don’t know, and it seems always about to vanish before our eyes.

In Train Dreams the world of beauty and terror is balanced as only our best writers have been able to balance those things. It is a world in which a “wolf-boy” in the Rex Theater in 1935 wears “a mask of fur, and a suit that looked like fur but was really something else.” The wolf-boy himself becomes something else, a “counterfeit monster” suddenly and strangely transformed into a real one to end the book and the time in America that it evokes with a howl that is at once less human and more fully human than anything we might imagine. The wolf-boy howls, “a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moaning of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.” Gone like the world of the steam engine, the big woods, the biplane, the carnival freak show—and perhaps also, as I’ve suggested, the world of hard copy book publication. But it is also a world in which, as Johnson’s serious, hopeful lady missionary proclaims at the end of A Tree of Smoke, in a paraphrase of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be saved.”

Train Dreams is an important little book, and Denis Johnson is an important big writer, and I hate to think of a time when he and a few others like him will not be there to protect us from our modern desire to flee the human world into something less human, less scary, less alive—and less permanent.

Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. More recently, he has published short fiction in The Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, and The Southern Review. This spring his short story “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” won a Pushcart Prize. Anthony Wallace died in May, 2018.


  1. Shelley on October 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Fascinating. That’s the time period of my work, too, and I’ve been looking for an illustrator like that. Who created that striking cover?

    • Tony Potter on January 18, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      The painting is by Thomas Hart Benton, an American artist, of course, and is called The Race (Homeward Bound).

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