Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Every wolf's and lion's howl
Raises from hell a human soul
~ William Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"

A novella scarcely 100 pages on half-sized leaves, finished in little more than an hour, Train Dreams hauls boxcars of story that could fully load the most epic of tomes.  Train Dreams is an epic yet terse tome tracking the eccentric lifetime of Robert Grainier from rustic outpost to wilderness depot.  The cadence of Train Dreams over precipitous trestles and into tunnels keeps time to the timelessness of Grainier's memories and not the continuum of a clock, so that we know Grainier the railroad builder before we know him as an orphan; know the happy short-lived family man after the long-time hermit.  We see the caboose quite often before the engine.  Grainier's jobs seem to converge and become the singular preoccupations in his life, be it freight carrier or logger, salvager or log cabin architect, and memories (or were they dreams?) lingered in Grainier's consciousness.  Despite its brevity, Train Dreams is no bullion cube of a book.  It's chateaubriand.  It communicates more not because of but in spite of conveying less.  So maybe it is the microscopic mass of William Blake's "grain of sand" -- so what?  Watch Denis Johnson make of it a world.

Credit Denis Johnson's nonchalant style, his miniaturist's skills (he is also a poet, and it shows), who wrought each day of Grainier's life to make them count.  Made each day count the way the best poetry makes each phoneme count. Frugal, but not a poor man's prose.  Granted, Johnson chose but a baker's dozen or so of Grainier's days to illuminate, but he chose the most poignant of his days.  Milestone days or crossroad days when Grainier, a wanderer of the northwest, understandably let his losses determine course.  Hard cargo he carried, not easily turned.  Grief haunted him, but he remained busy in his solitude (not discounting his nightly howling ritual with packs of wolves) deep in the lonesome woods, and it helped him maintain some levity, some sanity, commiserating his existence with those wild though faithful hounds.  Being preoccupied by his memories indistinguishable from his dreams, Grainier pretended not to notice the omnipresent heartache of the past gnawing on him. Train Dreams, thankfully, avoids the tragic melodrama of a made-for-TV train wreck because it's as tranquil as it is painful, and it does not blow smoke off even an inch of sentimental rails.

There's one day in Train Dreams that's stuck with me the most.  The day in 1917 when Robert Grainier, after nearly helping hurl a thieving "Chinaman" off a railroad bridge fifty feet above the Moyea River in Idaho's panhandle, walked two miles out of his way on his commute home from hard labor, to buy a bottle of Hood's Sarsaparilla for his wife, Gladys, whom he'd not seen in weeks.  She was home in their idyllic meadow cabin nursing their four-month-old, Kate.  Idyllic, that is, until Grainier's baby girl "did not seem to recognize him."  As that ominous day lapsed seamlessly into years, and the random conflagrations of  fate seared a bewildering estrangement between daughter and father that was the fault of neither, enter the unexpected forepaws of a fable and hind feet of a myth, that, thanks to Denis Johnson's imaginative gifts, crept aboard Train Dreams and helped it levitate off the tracks.