There’s an anecdote somewhere in one of Robert Pirsig’s books (this is a blog post, not an academic article, so I’m not going to take the time to dig it out and get it exactly right) where a white man is talking to a Native American, and there’s a dog running around them. The white man thinks it’s an odd looking dog. He says, “What kind of a dog is that?”

And the Native American says, “That’s a good dog.”

“Train Dreams” is a middle-ish length that confuses people. What kind of story is “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson? Is it a long short story? A novella? A short novel?

It’s a good story.

There’s a bit of “Train Dreams” that goes like this:

The town of Noxon lay on the south side of the Clark Fork River and the widow’s house lay on the north, so they didn’t get a chance even to stop over at the store for a soda, but pulled up into Claire’s front yard and emptied the house and loaded as many of her worldly possessions onto the wagon as the horses would pull, mostly heavy locked trunks, tools, and kitchen gear, heaping the rest aboard the Model T and creating a pile as high up as a man could reach with a hoe, and at the pinnacle two mattresses and two children, also a little dog. By the time Grainier noticed them, the children were too far above him to distinguish their age or sexual type.

I love the gentle exaggeration of this passage and the way it causes you to really see this towering pile of stuff in the Model T and the indistinguishable children high above. It reminded me, just a bit, of the introduction of Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

“Train Dreams” is the story of Robert Grainer’s life from the late 1800’s through the first half of the 20th century. It is set in the American West, and in Grainer’s life he works in bridge building and logging, flies in a biplane, comes near Elvis without seeing him. After he loses his wife and daughter, he becomes a kind of hermit, and as he becomes increasingly isolated his life becomes increasingly odd. The sample above is an example of this, of the curious passages that the hermit life is opening in Grainer’s mind. Later he sees his wife as a ghost, and then he sees his daughter as something even stranger.

The hermit is an exceptionally difficult character for fiction, since the hermit’s life deliberately avoids the kind of conflict between characters that powers most stories. When it’s done well, the conflict turns inward, and the landscape often takes on an important role. Two books that do this well and that I have long admired are “The Works of Love,” by Wright Morris, and “The Life and Times of Michael K,” by JM Coetzee. And “Train Dreams,” too, does it very well.

I’m going to try to start putting up a quick thought or two about the books I’m reading on this blog, from time to time. Please, let me know what you think.

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