Train Dreams: A Novella

  • Denis Johnson
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 128 pp.

A long and simple life in the wilderness, told as novella in luminous prose.

Reviewed by Liam Callanan

I once taught a creative writing class that had the novella as its theme. Like other teachers, I worried that fiction-writing workshops ― mine, at least ― had become short-story myopic, focusing on that form at the exclusion of all others.

At the same time, I was a bit gun-shy about heading to the other end of the spectrum and mounting a novel-writing workshop ― especially given John Gardner’s infamous description of one, wherein he had his students produce one new chapter and revise another each week: “All but one of the students kept to the schedule. The exception, a town woman with a full-time job, was hospitalized as a result of overwork. ... [S]tudents who were involved with other college courses that semester dropped those other courses.” Of course, successful novel workshops exist, and so, too, ones that center on the short story, but I decided to give novellas a try.

We wound up having a fruitful semester, but the whole time the question lingered: what exactly was a novella? Gardner, never shy with advice, offered a definition: “a single stream of action focused on one character and moving through a series of increasingly intense climaxes.” Indeed, he discusses the form for several pages in his 1983 book The Art of Fiction (where this quote is taken from; the previous paragraph’s quote is from his book On Becoming a Novelist), but interestingly, spends not a word answering the question that most of the Internet has about novellas, which is precisely how long they are (20,000, 40,000, 50,000 words?). Rather, he simply cites excellent examples: Faulkner’s The Bear, Gass’s The Pederson Kid and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, among them.

Had Gardner been writing today, he’d be hard pressed not to add Denis Johnson’s new book, Train Dreams, to that list.

It’s a new book, but an older story: Johnson first published it in Paris Review in 2002; in 2006, a German publisher brought out a version (or so Amazon reports). The 2011 FSG edition appears little changed, and a good thing: it’s still an extraordinary, reserved and ultimately strangely spooky story of one man’s entire adult life. Of Gardner’s examples, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart may be the closest cousin. Not because of the locales ― Flaubert sets his work in a 19th-century French village, Johnson in the early-20th-century Pacific Northwest ― but because of the protagonists, both of whom live seemingly simple lives of steady, quiet labor.

“In the summer of 1917,” Train Dreams begins, “Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer ... ,” but this is a bit of a feint: Grainier’s role here proves tangential and the incident is over in a couple of pages; this isn’t a book about a murder.

And yet. People die throughout the novella, and one character is, in fact, murdered (or so the victim claims in his dying monologue), and by the end, the narrative is crowded with ghosts. Certainly there’s much about the prose that’s haunting; when Grainier returns to his homestead to rebuild after a forest fire, for example, Johnson saturates the scene with color:

“As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow sand-colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees ... later in the summer [the bears] would forage in the low patches of huckleberry he already saw coming back on the blackened hillsides.”

And at the novel’s close, it’s not sight but sound that mesmerizes, when Grainier attends a 1930s vaudeville act that features a “wolf-boy”, who “stood still at center stage ... and went rigid, and began to tremble with a massive inner dynamism. ... He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into 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 music of flutes and the continuous moaning music of bagpipes. And suddenly…”

― I’ll let you pick up the book and find out for yourself what follows, but 10 words later, the book ends.

And when it does, readers may wonder why Johnson chose to finish in this way; such a spectacle hardly seems suited to capping the life story of a man who, we’re told, in 80-some years had only ever had  “one lover ... owned one acre of property, two horses and a wagon”; and what’s more, had “never been drunk ... never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone,” and had “no idea who his parents might have been and ... left no heirs behind him.” When Grainier dies, no one finds his body for months, and when they do, they bury him without fuss in the front yard.

But that only makes Johnson’s decision to end the novella with the wolf-boy’s howl all the more apt; there’s no better way to depict the sharp and hidden pains of a life as quiet as Grainier’s than with a noise that’s “the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made.”

And the ending’s more complicated still: over the course of the novella, even as Grainier’s work life descends into relentless drudgery ― he moves from railroad labor to life as a lumberjack, and finally to a job driving a wagon hauling freight ― the margins of the wilderness Grainier moves through press ever closer. He adopts a puppy that may be part wolf and finds himself on the floor one night trying to teach it to howl; rumors of a still stranger creature surface in town and Grainier then finds himself looking into its very eyes.

Train Dreams draws its title ostensibly from the fact that Grainier had “started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing outside” another train, but it could just as easily stem from his early work experiences on the railroad, which “made him hungry to be around such other massive undertakings.”

By the end of the book, it seems as though this hunger has hardly been sated ― Grainier’s few celebrations are tiny and even his failures, while frequent, are never grand ― but Johnson’s accomplishment is grand, and this book, short as it is, feels like a massive monument to a deceptively simple life and the wilderness in which it was lived.

I’ll let John Gardner shoulder his way in one last time, but only to say this:

“Nothing can be more perfect or complete than a good novella,” he writes in The Art of Fiction. I’ll only add that nothing can better describe Denis Johnson’s capacious book.

How many words is the perfect novella? My class and I never figured it out. But in Train Dreams, Denis Johnson has.

Liam Callanan lives and writes in Milwaukee and on the Web at His novels include The Cloud Atlas and All Saints.

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