“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson (2011) – 116 pages

It is a good thing when one of our most noted writers presents us with a novella. One gets an opportunity to encounter a writer quickly and painlessly. For me, the immediate pleasure is knowing that I will not have to carry around a heavy tome.

“Train Dreams” is a western that mostly takes place in the narrow Idaho panhandle which borders Canada. The book is not one of those westerns that have a lot of characters interacting with each other. In fact most of the novella is consumed with one character, Robert Granier, who is very much a hermit and a loner. Robert Granier does not interact with people very much, so each small meeting with another person assumes vast importance. There is also an element of magical realism in “Train Dreams”.

I’ve read several books by Denis Johnson starting with “Angels” which I consider an edgy masterpiece. Another excellent book of his is “Jesus’ Son” which is a collection of linked stories about drug-demented troubled drifters. I want to read ‘Tree of Smoke’ which is one of those over 600 page tomes I mentioned above and won all kinds of awards. Denis Johnson writes about madness, losing oneself, and redeeming oneself like no one else. He writes as one who lived through it, having battled alcohol and drug addiction for much of his life.

“Train Dreams” is a much more austere story than Johnson’s previous work. This novella focuses nearly exclusively on the loner’s thoughts and actions.

Most of the reviews I’ve read of this novella approach this book with near total adoration. I don’t share their enthusiasm for “Train Dreams”. I did think it was perhaps an above average story, but it was too plain, sparse, and dry to captivate me, to always hold my interest. I hope Johnson is not falling in to the Cormac McCarthy school of spare novel writing. That would not be good.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony, thank you for the reminder. I have two copies of D. Johnson but have simply not mustered the Go to read him. I’ll start with Angels, I will. Cheers, Kevin

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  2. Hi Kevin,
    I do believe either ‘Angels’ or ‘Jesus’ Son’ is the place to start with Denis Johnson.

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