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Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
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A Novella

A-TrainDreamsDenis Johnson won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke (4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2007). His works include Fiskadoro (1985), Nobody Move (2009), and Jesus' Son: Stories (1992). Train Dreams, a novella, originally appeared in the Paris Review in 2002.

The Story: Around the turn of the 20th century, the orphaned Robert Grainier, a logger, hauler, and fallen Methodist, lives in the panhandle of northern Idaho. His quiet family life shatters when he participates in a lynch mob against a Chinese laborer accused of theft. The laborer escapes, but not before placing a curse on Grainier that destroys his family life. Set in the rugged logging camps and railroad towns of the American West, Train Dreams tells the story of one man trying to overcome tragedy while living in a rapidly changing 20th century that bears little semblance to the past.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 128 pages. $18. ISBN: 9780374281144

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In a way, Train Dreams puts me in mind of a late Bob Dylan album: with the wildness and psychedelia of youth burned out of him, Johnson's eccentricity is revealed as pure Americana. ... I read Train Dreams in an afternoon, and could not put it down, no matter how my children called for my attention." Gabriel Brownstein

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The novella has flaws, of course: tufts of seemingly irrelevant material stick out here and there, miscellaneous fevers, peripheral anecdotes, a Chinese deportation, a big kid with a weak heart. But its imperfections somehow make the experience better, more real, more absorbing, and it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written." Anthony Doerr

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Johnson's new novella may be his most pared-down work of fiction yet, but make no mistake--it packs a wallop. ... It renders the story of America and our westward course of empire in the most beautiful and heartbreaking manner imaginable." Andrew Ervin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It's an ordinary life, but one filled with wonders, as all lives are if we only look. ... The writing is spare and frequently beautiful; Johnson's backwoods dialogue and tall tales are often hilarious; and he graces us with such wonderful words as ‘pulchritude' and ‘confabulation'--it's a shame we don't hear them much anymore." Stephen K. Tollefson

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told." Bob Minzesheimer

Critical Summary

The slim Train Dreams marks a departure from Johnson's 600+ page Tree of Smoke, but it is no less powerful--perhaps even more so for its brevity. A subtle writer, Johnson skillfully explores the dark side of western expansion--from racism and mass environmental destruction to the uprooting and displacement of Native American populations. He also successfully delves into his somewhat trademark themes, including the dichotomy between religion and superstition and "how their interactions can transform both" (Miami Herald). But above all, the novella is a quiet tale of one man's life, "a small masterpiece" with ample power to transform its readers--if even momentarily. "What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier's life," notes the New York Times Book Review, "is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small."