The Wolves at the Door: a review of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

In 2007 Denis Johnson won the National Book award for his epic novel of the Vietnam War, Tree of Smoke. In 2012 his novella Train Dreams, which was originally released as a short story in a 2002 issue of the Paris Review, was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction chosen by three jurors (Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, Susan Larson). the other finalists were: The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace (and his editor) and Swamplandia by the highly touted young writer, Karen Russell. None of the three were ultimately chosen as no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year. Agreed, it is an odd lot, but Train Dreams, as spare and arcane as it might have seemed to the Pulitzer board, is more than worthy of the influential accolade.

Robert Grainier, whose life is bracketed by timber, locomotives, wolves in the great northern woods, is Johnson's everyman hero in this modern American folk tale.Grainier, born around the turn of the century, and living most of his mostly solitary life near the Kootenai and Moyea rivers in the Idaho panhandle, is witness to a lot of history and a lot of change is his eighty odd years, absorbing it all through a magical kind of reality with painful clarity. He never knew his parents and dies alone, a hermit of sorts yet he personifies the perseverance of mankind to coexist in the feral world.
When he was young he got by working odd jobs cutting timber, not until he was 31 did he meet Gladys Olding, a nice girl with "an easy smile" who introduced herself one Sunday after church. Grainier takes her out one hot June day to show her his property, a one acre tract of land on the short bluff by the Moyea river. There  he takes it into his head to get a little romantic:
"The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in--as if he'd been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him."   
Johnson's evocative writing can sometimes snatch you up short. He facilely zigzags through Grainier's story  relating life-changing experiences through anecdote and legend, but there is always that sense of a backbone running through Grainier's days, tethering it all.

Denis Johnson
When a conflagration, early in his life, robs Grainier of all he holds dear, his family and home, although he feels cursed, he endures. He eventually rebuilds on the tidy acre, makes a pet of a wolfish dog, tramps to town now and again, living there in winter when age limits his abilities; it hardly occurs to him to seek replacement companionship. He never takes a drink and when lust hits him suddenly in his fifties, he is literally knocked silly, bathes in the ice cold river and distracts himself by taking a long hike. In town he has a few acquaintances. One among them, Kootenai Bob, of the Kootenai tribe, tells him of the mating habits of wolves and of a wolf-child that has been seen by the river. And he dreams; he dreams of his wife Gladys and of his daughter Kate, he dreams of fire, great forests of it, and of his own well tended camp fire, he dreams too of trains, the trestles he helped build, of Kootenai Bob passed out on the tracks, the great train whistle, the whistle that will resonate to a howl, and the howl of the wolves.

Johnson succeeds in writing a near perfect novella (about 116 pages) in which he brings to life a person whom one might say hardly mattered at all. He tells of a solitary, unremarkable being, unnoticed by most, but who, like the forest around him razed by fire, is reborn; as scrub pine at first but ultimately as the towering spruce. In so doing, he makes us recognize ourselves.

~Book Jones 4.8 Stars
  • Title: Train Dreams
  • Author: Denis Johnson
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374281149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281144