Train Dreams (Johnson)

Train Dreams: A Novella
Denis Johnson, 2011
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
128 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780374281144


Summary
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.

Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime.

Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West—its otherworldly flora and fauna, its rugged loggers and bridge builders—the new novella by the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1949
Where—Munich, Germany (of American parents)
Education—M.F.A., University of Iowa, USA
Awards—National Book Award; Whiting Writer's Award; Paris Review's Aga Khan Prize
Currently—lives in Arizona and Idaho, USA


Denis Hale Johnson is an American author who is known for his short-story collection Jesus' Son (1992), his novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the National Book Award, his novella, Train Dreams (2011), and The Laughing Monsters (2014). He also writes plays, poetry and non-fiction.

Johnson was born in 1949 in Munich, West Germany. He holds an MFA degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he has also returned to teach. He received a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1986 and a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction in 1993.

Johnson first came to prominence after the publication of his short story collection Jesus' Son (1992), whose 1999 film adaptation was named one of the top ten films of the year by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Roger Ebert. Johnson has a cameo role in the film as a man who has been stabbed in the eye by his wife.

Johnson's plays have been produced in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Seattle. He is the Resident Playwright of Campo Santo, the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.

In 2006-2007, Johnson held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

Johnson lives with his wife, Cindy Lee, in Arizona and Idaho. He has three children, two of whom he homeschooled; in October, 1997 he wrote an article for Salon.com in defense of homeschooling. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
I first read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery.... Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I’d page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson’s evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive.... The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence...it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written.
Athony Doerr - New York Times Book Review


Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is like a long out-of-print B-side, a hard-to-find celebrated work treasured by those in the know that’s finally become available to the rest of us.... Train Dreams is a peculiarly gripping book. It palpably conjures the beauty of an American West then still very much a place of natural wonder and menace, and places one man’s lonely life in that landscape, where he’s at once comfortably at home and utterly lost.
Dan DeLuca  - Philadelphia Inquirer


His hero, Robert Grainier, a sometimes logger and sometimes hauler, is as dislocated as any wandering druggy from an earlier Johnson book. And in these logging camps and train towns, Johnson has found a territory as strange and unpredictable as any dystopic landscape of his imagination. In a way, Train Dreams puts me in mind of a late Bob Dylan album: with the wildness and psychedelia of youth burned out of him, Johnson's eccentricity is revealed as pure Americana.
Gabriel Brownstein - Cleveland Plain Dealer


Johnson’s new novella may be his most pared-down work of fiction yet, but make no mistake—it packs a wallop.... Train Dreams is a small book of weighty ideas. It renders the story of America and our westward course of empire in the most beautiful and heartbreaking manner imaginable.... Train Dreams explores what was lost in the process of American growth. Much to his credit, Johnson doesn’t simply posit industry and nature against each other, or science and religion, or even human and animal, but instead looks at how their interactions can transform both. And [Robert] Grainier is there through all of this examination, over the course of his long and sad life, to serve as our witness and maybe even our conscience.
Andrew Ervin - Miami Herald


[A] severely lovely tale.... The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson’s deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured. I started reading Train Dreams with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story’s unaffected tact and honesty.
James Wood - The New Yorker


Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume...but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson’s epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus’ Son.... An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review.) National Book Award winner Johnson (Tree of Smoke) has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer . . . The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers.... Highly recommended. —Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast, TX
Library Journal


National Book Award-winner Johnson, ever the literary shape-shifter, looks back to America’s expansionist fever dream in a haunting frontier ballad about a loner named Robert Granier.... Johnson draws on history and tall tales to adroitly infuse one contemplative man’s solitary life with the boundless mysteries of nature and the havoc of humankind’s breakneck technological insurgency, creating a concentrated, reverberating tale of ravishing solemnity and molten lyricism. —Donna Seaman
Booklist



Discussion Questions
Introduction (by Amy Clements)

Throughout his award-winning career, Denis Johnson has brought us an endlessly fascinating cast of characters: sinners, saviors, and desperate souls caught in between. In Train Dreams, he presents a provocative portrait of a man who comes to know both excruciating hardship and quiet wonder in the American West in the first half of the twentieth century. A day laborer, Robert Grainier is on the front line in the modernization of the frontier, opening a rugged landscape to railway service, shoulder to shoulder with teams of countless men like him. Their world is divided between those who survive against astounding odds and those who succumb. Grainier is a survivor in all senses of the word: when he loses his young family, he returns to his solitary ways and struggles to make sense of the tragedy, even as he continues to feel the spiritual presence of his wife and daughter.

An epic in miniature, Train Dreams captures a singular chapter in the American story, set in an otherworldly landscape that has the potential to haunt anyone who attempts to subdue it. As we witness history alongside Grainier, we are forced to weigh the human toll against the awe-inspiring arrival of “civilization” as ordinary men eke out a living in extraordinary times. The result is a poignant, illuminating novella from one of the greatest storytellers of his generation.

This guide is designed to enhance your discussion of Train Dreams. We hope that the following questions and topics will enrich your reading of this finely honed tribute to the human experience.


1. What did the incident with the Chinese laborer show us about Robert Grainier and his beliefs regarding human suffering?

2. What made Grainier and Gladys’s marriage special? How was he transformed by his role as a husband and father?

3. What does the novella tell us about the nature of survivors such as Arn Peeples (chapter two) versus those who perish? How do the characters understand death?

4. In chapter three, how was the young Grainier affected by his encounter with half-dead William Haley and the tragic tale of Haley’s niece?

5. What aspects of life in the West stayed the same as Grainier matured and grew old? What aspects of his life were lost to modernization?

6. For Grainier, is solitude a form of solace and peace, or is loneliness painful for him? Is his solitary life appealing to you?

7. What does Kate’s story tell us about Grainier’s capacity for love? Is his community cruel or just naive?

8. In the third chapter, we’re told that Grainier never knew his parents and wasn’t even sure if he had been born in the United States or in Canada. In the absence of a mother and a father, who and what shaped his identity?

9. How does the novella’s spectacular scenery become a character itself? How do the settlers balance the brutality of nature, captured in the horrific wildfire, with their desire to live on a frontier?

10. What does the demise of Kootenai Bob in chapter four say about the relationship between his people and the settlers? What determines who the outsiders are in Grainier’s world?

11. Revisit the story of Peterson, who was shot by his own dog (chapter five). How do humans and animals get along in Train Dreams? What aspects of the animal world, and the spirit world, terrify the settlers the most?

12. Discuss the title. What are the dreamlike qualities of this novella? As Grainier expands the nation’s rail system through his death-defying work, is he transported or trapped?

13. The novella contains many powerful scenes of backbreaking manual labor through which human beings “triumph” over nature. What circumstances drew them to this life? Under what circumstances would you be satisfied with so few creature comforts?

14. Discuss the novella’s closing image. What did the wolf-boy reveal to a crowd of townspeople (including Grainier) who thought they had seen it all?

15. Much of Denis Johnson’s other fiction deals with destructive wars within the self, especially in Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. Does Train Dreams underscore this view of humanity, or is it a departure from Johnson’s previous work?
(Questions issued by publisher...and written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop.)

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