Johnson, Denis: Train Dreams ( with poems by Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas)

This month we read a novella, so coupled it with “What I expected” by Stephen Spender and “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. The Book Group meeting took place despite the unavoidable absence of the proposer.

The absent proposer helpfully provided the meeting with his personal views on the book and the poems and the connection between them. These were read out at the start of the meeting and provided the stimulus for the ensuing discussion. His comments and observations are unashamedly plagiarized in this blog.

Poet, playwright and author, Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949, and raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington, D.C., the son of a US State Department employee. A chronicler of substance abusers living at the margins of society, Johnson himself had a substance abuse problem from an early age graduating from alcohol to hard drugs, including heroin before eventually overcoming his addiction.

He gained a Masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1974 and has received numerous literary awards including ; Whiting Awards, 1986, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts 1986, Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 1993 and the National Book Award for Fiction in 2007 for “Tree of Smoke”.

He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012 for “Train Dreams” (while it was first published in 2002 as a long short story in “The Paris Review” it became eligible for a Pulitzer for the first time when it was published, as a novel, in 2012.). Controversially the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that it would award no Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012. Johnson is currently the first visiting professor in Boise State University, Idaho, where he is contributing to the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.

“Train Dreams” is a third person historical novella describing the life of Robert Grainier, an orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, becomes an itinerant labourer working on logging gangs, and falls in love. He loses his wife and daughter in a particularly devastating wildfire. The story is about an ordinary man in extraordinary times, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family, and bearing witness to the radical changes that transform his country in his lifetime.

The proposer was given the book as a birthday present and was so captivated by it that he has read it 3 times in the last 12 months. He chose it as a book group read because it is short! He hoped that this would give the group more time to think about the contents at a deeper level than has been possible with longer reads. When reading the book he found himself questioning the “purposeful” activities we all indulge in, separating what matters from what does not.

He was drawn back by the excellent lyrical quality of the writing and the thread of understated humour. He commented that  Johnson makes an extraordinary novella from an ordinary life and he suggests that this may arise from his background as a poet, perhaps even from the years of drugs and alcohol abuse.

He considered that the novel “has a real sense of place: I imagine easily I am there and I believe in the characters”. He referred to the following passage as an example of  the lyrical prose to be found throughout the novella and which he thought so descriptively effective:

Animals had returned to what was left of the forest. As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow sand colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees. More bears than people travelled the muddy road, leaving tracks straight up and down the middle of it; later in the summer they would forage in the low patches of huckleberry he already saw coming back on the blackened hillsides

He also appreciated the humour which surfaces unexpectedly and provides such a contrast with Grainier’s bleak and often humdrum existence, e.g. through the matter of fact exchanges of Grainier with a man shot by his dog.

Sir, are you dead?
Who? Me? Nope. Alive.
Well I was wondering – do you feel as if you might go on?
You mean as if I might die?
Yessir.
Nope. Ain’t going to die tonight.
That’s good.
Even better for me, I’d say.”

He suggested that the contrasts drawn between the pace of the great global changes of the twentieth century and the local events that impinge on Grainier’s dull existence add pathos to his story. They reveal the passing of an age and expose the apparent mundaneness of his existence. He further described Grainger as a man who has no apparent expectation but is a man to whom things happen, and as a man who does not think deeply and creatively. He was a man of whom it might have been said, but nothing was ever said of him, that he had little to interest him.

Johnson’s summary of Grainier’s life is:

Grainier himself lived more than 80 years…. he’d never seen the ocean… he’d had one lover… owned one acre of property…. he’d never spoken into a telephone… he’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles and once on an aircraft… he had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him… When he passed away… he lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall, and through the winter, and was never missed

The use of superstition and the extraordinary add depth to the characterization of Grainier.  Examples are when he feels he has been cursed by a Chinese man who escapes from imminent lynching, when describing his search for his family, his decision to remain and resettle the land after the fire, his sole encounter with his wife’s spirit, and his later encounter with the wolf girl who he believes to be his daughter, Kate.

Kate is it you. But it was… Kate she was, but Kate no longer

The book group admired both the book and the proposer’s views of it. All were captivated by Johnson’s writing and hugely impressed by his ability to pack so much into so few pages. They felt that his startling descriptive power had given meaning to Grainier’s very ordinary life. Conversation initially focused on scene setting. We noted the importance of the development of the railways in America in the 1920’s and the use of labour drawn from, both other parts of the USA and abroad, including large numbers of Chinese. The work was hard and dangerous. Life was cheap and could be cruel. It was a hand to mouth existence. Death was an ever present, an accepted fact of life observed by Johnson in a shockingly matter of fact way. There was an acceptance of hardship and a “keep the head down” attitude seemed to be the norm.

The group marvelled at the quickening pace of change over Grainier’s life, cleverly revealed by Johnson’s references to events and to Grainier’s wonder at some of his experiences. The discussion then strayed into a debate about change and whether or not the pace of change today is any less than over the period covered by ‘Train Dreams”.

There were differing views on this. Some thought that change accelerates over time while others argued that the pace of change is less important than its impact on individuals and civilization as a whole. It was pointed out that Grainier had lived through a period of massive change, but that his changing world had very little practical impact on him or his way of life.

The Group was also greatly impressed by the sense of isolation achieved by Johnson and discussed the various ways that he had achieved this. In addition to the sense of place mentioned by the proposer, we thought that Johnson’s depiction of Grainier as a self-sufficient individual was a particularly important factor in building a picture of overall isolation. Grainier, with the possible exceptions of his wife, daughter and dogs, had no other meaningful relationships in his life The fact that these characters and the relationships between them, are only superficially described, has the effect of adding to that sense of isolation and loneliness.

This depiction of Grainier as a very private and lonely person is successfully cultivated through a number of references, e.g. the conversation between a widow and Grainier:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit. Did you ever think about that?” Grainier replies:

I don’t believe I am a hermit” but he reflects “I a hermit? Is this what a hermit is?”.

His loneliness is also reinforced by the description of his struggles to deal with “pulchritude” and with his associated self-loathing.

His desires must be completely out of nature; he was the kind of man who might couple with a beast, — as he’d long ago heard it phrased—jigger himself a cow.

The group particularly admired the evocative language used by Johnson, and the remarkable power and economy of words. His ability to convey the essence of minor characters in a few short sentences was admired by many of the group. For example, the Chinese worker, who was about to be thrown off a railroad bridge by Grainier and a group of his fellow workers, is described as “twisting like a weasel in a sack” and “weeping his gibberish”.

Finally the group considered the point made by the proposer about the purposeful activities in which we indulge, and we debated whether we engage in activities that are of any greater significance than those that occupied Grainier’s life. The ensuing discussion was destined to reach no meaningful conclusion, but nevertheless provided interesting insights into our differing views of our respective contributions to the world or to the society in which we live.

One reviewer of “Train Dreams”, said;

Johnson remains defined as a cult figure writer because of his early drug drenched fiction and hard boiled prose, but in Train Dreams he stakes his claim as one of the key voices in contemporary American fiction.

He goes on to describe the work  “A small masterpiece.”

While very few members of the Book Group had read much of Johnson’s work, or indeed sufficient contemporary American fiction, to be able to endorse the reviewer’s views about Johnson’s status, the Group was able to agree to describe Train Dreams as “A small masterpiece”.

In addition to “Train Dreams” the Group considered two poems with related themes: “What I Expected”, by Stephen Spender and “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.

The proposer described “ What I expected” as a poem about disillusionment with life and questions whether we should, like Grainier, simply accept “the futility and banality of it all”.

Spender suggests that one starts life with grand intentions and a hope to become strong with continual effort, but ultimately he “watches cripples pass with limbs shaped like questions”. In contrast Grainier has no ambition, no expectation and simply accepts whatever life throws at him. “Arthritis and rheumatism made simple daily chores nearly impossible”. Spender’s disillusionment arises from expectation, “expecting always”. Grainier on the other hand is not disappointed; he has no ambition, is contented and lives in the moment.

Dylan Thomas’s famous “villanelle” urges his dying father to cling to life; to resist the inevitable, despite the loss of sight, general health and strength, to fight to the end. To “burn and rave” against dying.

Granier passed away quietly, in his sleep, without fanfare:

He lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall and through the winter and was never missed.”

Perhaps he did “burn and rave”, but it seems highly unlikely and there was no one there to witness it. Grainier was at peace with the world and with himself, and no doubt died content and unconcerned.

It was suggested by some of the Group that Grainier’s way was best, but others thought that the world would be a much sorrier place if individuals simply accepted their fate without question or challenge. Indeed some went as far as to propose that the human condition required individuals to adopt a more aggressive approach to life.

In his concluding paragraph the proposer cynically stated:

These three works all put the human condition into perspective, and should cause you to pause as you go about your all-consuming and reality-denying business”.

All considered “Train Dreams”, together with the two poems, to be an inspired choice and thoroughly “purposeful” reads. They did indeed cause us to reflect on the meaning of life, and to question the worth of what we do. This is an enjoyable read, with potentially depressing consequences.