Book Review: 'Train Dreams'

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson tells the life story of a railroad worker from the early 20th century, and, while short, it's a rich dramatic rendition of a man's life.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: The American West is the first half of the 20th century is the setting for a new short novel from writer Denis Johnson. It's called "Train Dreams," and it follows the life of a railroad worker in Idaho. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says this book is proof that the length of a novel has no bearing on its depth.

ALAN CHEUSE: "Train Dreams" comes to us as a seemingly plain and stark depiction of an ordinary American man's life on the waning frontier in the early days of the last century. Denis Johnson works in what I would call emotive exposition, which lends declarative statements a certain kind of dramatic force. He works the story of Robert Granier's unself-examined life with a sort of matter of fact tone that gives off its own vitality.

Granier works as a laborer clearing forests for railroad tracks. He courts and wins a woman he meets at church. He marries her and fathers a child. He loses this family in a huge fire and Johnson deploys paragraph upon paragraph and scene upon scene in a fashion similar to the way in which his protagonist rebuilds in the valley where the terrible fire had wiped out his family. He built his cabin about 18 by 18, Johnson writes, laying out lines, making a foundation of stones in a ditch knee deep to get down below the frost line.

Scribing and hewing the logs to keep each one flush against the next, hacking notches. What seems merely descriptive here becomes emotionally evocative. But this is more than just an exercise in style. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will feel Robert Granier who dies in the 1960s living on in their minds.

NORRIS: "Train Dreams" is by Denis Johnson. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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