In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson constructs a melancholy portrait of the U.S. frontier. Instead of focusing on the raw potential and opportunity most associate with the Western expansion, Johnson elucidates the isolation and stasis involved in “taming” a wild place. Johnson artfully constructs a non-linear account of Robert Grainier’s life on the frontier. Through Grainier’s perspective, we witness the rapid transformation of America – from railroad construction to the proliferation of sleek highways; from influenza epidemics to a random encounter with Elvis Presley. Despite the changes going on around him, Grainier remains a lonely outsider, observing the world’s expedited evolution from a distance.
Fittingly, Grainier’s first memory is of an iconic symbol of movement and progress: a train. As a child, he was sent to Idaho on the Great Northern Railroad to live with his cousins. The experience of locomotion erased all memory of his origins, leaving him with a vague and malleable sense of self: “The whole adventure made him forget things as soon as they happened, and he very soon misplaced this earliest part of his life entirely.
For many years, Grainier’s identity does not progress past the protean confusion of his childhood. Even as an adult, he works with little direction, moving from job to job as the demand for labor fluctuates. He works on the railroad, and later clears land to make way for new tracks. It is only his wife, Gladys, and their baby daughter that seem to anchor him.
After clearing timber in Washington, Grainier returns to his homestead in the Moyea Valley. Instead of finding his family’s cozy cabin intact, he discovers the land still smoldering from a savage fire: “The world was gray, white, black, and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning and yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire.” He desperately searches for any trace of his wife and daughter, but finds nothing except an ashen scar where their cabin once stood.
What little meaning Grainer’s life had evaporates after he loses his family. He builds a lean-to out of scraps and howls to relieve the burden of his loneliness. Gradually, however, life returns to the ravaged valley. Nature reclaims the clearing where his home used to be, and Grainier fights once more to establish a place for himself, reconstructing the cabin a bit at a time.
Grainier’s new life is an isolated one, however. As his body ages, he loses the ability to keep up with the demands of frontier labor. Instead of returning to work in the woods or building railroads, Grainier delivers supplies to those who are outside of the railroad’s scope. He only hears distant reminders of the rails in his dreams and when the “locomotive’s lonesome whistle” penetrates his rural valley.
Train Dreams is a haunting, evocative novella about the tragic, grotesque, and melancholy aspects of frontier life. Johnson writes with a minimalist style that is perfectly suited to the sparse, laconic atmosphere of Grainier’s world.