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'Train Dreams' Evokes Frontier Life, Fate And Death

Think of the spare straight lines of a Grant Wood engraving. Denis Johnson's striking new short novel about life, fate and death in the early 20th-century American mountain West, leaves that impression — plain yet stark in its depiction of an ordinary man's life both particular and universal. And think of the compactness and pacing of Jim Harrison's masterly novella Legends of the Fall and you'll also gain some idea of what it's like to read Train Dreams. Johnson borrows something of his technique from Harrison, a device I would call emotive exposition, which lends declarative statements of fact a certain kind of dramatic force, and harks back to the work of Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson.

Here's what Johnson does, as in, for example, the opening paragraphs of Train Dreams:

The matter-of-factness of the first couple of sentences about the everyday cruelty of the American frontier partakes of the seeming impartiality and declarative truth of a newspaper account. The shift in the third sentence to the sounds made by the would-be victim eases us, without any difficulty at all, from the realm of the factual to the realm of the dramatic. Johnson works the story of Grainier's un-self-examined life in this same way, from his life laboring on the railroad, clearing forests for track, to his courtship, marriage, his mourning for the wife and child he loses in a huge fire, his eventual work as a hauler and, late in life, in town.

Denis Johnson is the author of <em>Tree of Smoke, </em>which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2007.<em><strong></strong></em>
Cindy Johnson /
Denis Johnson is the author of Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2007.

Johnson deploys paragraph upon paragraph and scene upon scene in a fashion similar to the way in which, we hear, Grainier himself rebuilds in the Moyea Valley, where before the terrible fire he enjoyed a simple but pleasing domestic life:

What seems merely descriptive here becomes emotionally evocative. We sense that Grainier is not just rebuilding a structure but attempting to reconstruct his life.

In the same fashion, Johnson gives us passages from the natural world, as in the following excerpt in which we see the valley coming back after the devastating fire, that evoke more than just themselves:

In this way, Johnson beautifully conveys what he calls "the steadying loneliness" of most of Grainier's life, the ordinary adventures of a simple man whose people are, we hear, "the hard people of the northwestern mountains," and toward the end even convinces us of his character's inquisitive and perhaps even deeper nature than we might first have imagined. Grainier "lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s," we learn. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will find him living on.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.
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