Writing a big story in a small book, Denis Johnson tells a strange history of the American West through a man’s life on the railroad in his 116 page novella – Train Dreams. Johnson demands your attention by beginning with a Chinese laborer dangling from a rail trestle, but then backs off into a drawling account of Robert Lanier’s life from his young orphaned years in the late 1800s to his death alone in a cabin in the woods eighty years later.
As Johnson follows Lanier’s life in the Idaho panhandle, the story takes on the flavor of a yarn told around the campfire – until Johnson jolts the narrative. When Lanier is not witnessing death, he tells of rail accidents, fires, murder, and catastrophes, but in a disaffected tone that makes the incidents seem like normal fare for the times – sometimes with a sense of justice. The tale of the dog-shot man is at once humorous and jarring. Pioneer characters sprinkle the narrative at first, and later Johnson has Lanier spotting Elvis Presley on a train.
Although short, Train Dreams requires full attention as the time unravels quickly over a lifetime. Otherwise, the feeling of the growing West and the man would be easy to miss, as Johnson reminds the reader in his last lines:
“And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.”