Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

traindreamsThe next time you walk into a bookstore, it’s worth remembering that unseen battles have raged over the shelf-space in front of you. Winning the prime, eye-level locations and avoiding the dustier corners requires strategy, charm, the offer of a good lunch and perhaps even hard cash.

The stores themselves, of course, want you believing that here is either what you want, or should want, and so going into London’s largest bookstore last week, I decided to be led. With time-plus-cash in hand, and my cynicism tucked away, I roamed only within a restricted locus near the main entrance. And it was here that I picked up Train Dreams, by Dennis Johnson (Granta, 128). The first thing to remark upon, is size: it’s eye-catchingly small. Described as a novella, it’s really more of a long, short story. Secondly it offers what for many will be a new, vicarious experience: it’s about a day labourer in the American West at the start of the 20th Century. But what really swayed me were the plaudits: ‘Johnson is one of the best prose writers in our time’Michael Ondaatje. ‘It’s a love story, a hermit’s story … it’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed’ – New York Times. Sold.

For those hooked on genre fiction – wherein bad things happen to someone good on page one, with the story then riding an arc towards conflict resolution – this ain’t the book for you. Literary fiction moves to a different rhythm, and need offer no apology for doing so, however a strong start is still a must. Train Dreams opens with a curious, though ultimately successful scene: that of the attempted murder of a Chinaman. The author, tellingly, cleverly, leaves the issue of the Chinaman’s guilt hanging, and further casts no judgement on the main character – who joins the gang by chance as they drag the man up an incline to throw him over a bridge; not because he knows the Chinaman is guilty or because he trusts those wanting to deliver summary justice, but simply to lend a hand. For all this says – or rather, what it doesn’t say – the scene works. However it so nearly fails due to any lack of momentum, of urgency: attempted murder is treated like a walk in the park. This of course is deliberate – the author is transporting us to that time and place, that isolation, trying to get us to see the haziness out on that frontier. However with no break in tone, no ebb and flow of pace, the lullaby soon distorts and almost grinds to a halt:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese labourer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainier, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit’s bare feet. The man facing him, Mr Sears, from Spokane International’s management, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: “Boys, I’m damned if we ever see the top of this heap!” Then we’re hauling him all the way? Was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.

Compounding the above is that the main character is kept grounded, unable to take off as the reader is dragged through a stream of vignettes, many of them disjoint and banal. The result is a patchwork of detail that amounts to not very much. ‘I don’t think there is a sentence in this book that isn’t perfectly made’ – Ann Patchett, New York Times. Really?? The hero of the piece doesn’t come alive until the death of his wife and child. It’s an unexpected turn, genuinely shocking, and it was only at this point that I cared about the protagonist.

Train Dreams is a story about an honest man, unable to make sense of the blows that forces beyond him deliver; and that does, eventually, come through powerfully. And his reaction to the cruel randomness of life – by simply withdrawing from it – is a tribute to a kind of human being who no longer exists, who indeed became extinct on the cusp of the modern age. The story is thus an ode, almost a requiem to just such a man, and overall it works. But swathes of it are just too ordinary to deserve the accolades received. Or its prime spot on the shelves.

Tamim Sadikali, author of Dear Infidel, 2014

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