Saturday, 29 October 2011

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I kept hearing about this book on Twitter. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A new book I din't know about by one of my favourite authors? I tried to find a UK publisher but there didn't seem to be one. John, The Bookseller Crowtweeted me to say he had a US copy in his shop. A few moments later I was on the phone handing over my post code and card digits. The next day the book arrived. The day after, I read it.

Train Dreams was first published in the Paris Review. It is short, a novella really, but crams a lot in. The cover shows a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. A horse dashes through the landscape. A train rushes along behind and would catch up if the scene were not frozen in art. Steam and smoke flow backward from the engine, like tha mane of a galloping horse. The message in the picture, of industrialisation rapidly overtaking the modes of life that first expanded the Western frontier, is mirrored in the plot. Robert Grainier's life (he is the main character) sees him help to build the railways that will transform the US landscape. During his lifetime he also encounters the Model T Ford and an aeroplane.

Reading the book is like riding a train. There is such a powerful forward motion the reader is swept along through scenes and situations that are hard to grasp and become fragmented parts of a greater narrative whole. The effect is absolutely not sketchy. This is no quick grab of a scene from a fixed viewpoint, lines drawn as fast as the brain can see. Rather the viwer is constantly moving, only able to take snapshots of what they see before it rushes away forever. In this manner this brilliant novella gains the narrative sweep of an epic but also retains a close focus in which every moment revealed vibrates with the intensity of dream or hallucination.

There is one moment in particular that lingers, days later, in my mind. In fact it's probably worth quoting in full:

Gladys was up with Kate, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.

"How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog pup, do you suppose?"

"A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away," Gladys said. 

He waited for her to explain what she said. She often thought ahead of him. 

"A man-child couldn't do that way," she said "just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too - as many as a baby."

"How many words, Gladys?" 

"You know," she said, "the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do." 

"Just say some of the words, Glad." It was dark and he wanted to keep hearing her voice. 

"Well, fetch, and come, and sit, and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words."

In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck. All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night. 

This scene, and the words of Gladys in particular, resonate through the entire story. A mother, father and child - an island of love in the midst of a harsh wilderness. How do people remain human when they are surrounded by animal violence and the raw terror of the elements?

Johnson's mini-novel becomes a literary howl beneath a savage moon; man and animal blend in the face of the fragility of all those moments of beauty that contain in their very blossoming the beginning of an ending.

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