Archive for September, 2011

“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

Sunday, September 11th, 2011



Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is a well-wrought story of an American life. Its power will remind the reader of other durable works in the canon of American literature.

The book’s backwoods setting and the stoic philosophy of its characters have sympathetic ties to Hemingway’s early Nick Adams stories set in the Michigan woods. It’s laconic protagonist, Robert Grainier, is an heir to the solitary fate of men found in Jack London’s man-against-nature tales. Grainier is an uneducated man, a day laborer, and it is the hard work of living that Johnson attends to most sensitively. His interest in this common man is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s attention to the kindred spirits populating his short novels of the Depression era. As well, Johnson’s prose — simple, direct, unmannered — employs an an oft-used American style.

Yet there is nothing derivative, nothing imitative, nothing second-hand or second-rate, in “Train Dreams.” This is a stand-alone classic.

Here is a mystery: While the novella recounts a man’s life, the narrative structure Johnson adopts owes nothing to the usual forms that typically command the allegiance of the reader of life stories. The book does not take the form of a journey or an adventurous quest. It follows no easy arc that might help to confer some apparent purpose. Spoken words are few. Gainier’s taciturnity is matched by a mind unreflective, or at best only quietly reflective. How, then, does “Train Dreams” draw us in so close to an embrace that we feel its emotional force?

That’s a question to keep in mind when, a few years from now, you again pull this slim volume from the shelf or fire-up your e-reader . . . and settle in for a second reading experience.


1. There is a free audio excerpt of the first five pages (3 ½ minutes, as read by Will Patton) available online at the publisher’s website, here.

2. Among reviews in mainstream media outlets, James Wood’s high praise in The New Yorker (Sept. 5, 2011, pp. 80-81; online here [subscription required]) is worthwhile as it discusses how the book relates to Johnson’s other works. But be alert that Wood’s piece gives away much of the plot and broadcasts many of the book’s specific beauties which ought to be left as surprises. Wood writes not so much for the potential reader as for those interested in testing its themes after completing the book.

3. Many people are mentioning the captivating book cover illustration. It is a reproduction of a lithograph (produced in an edition of 250 impressions in 1942) by the American regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton. Two years later Benton reworked the image as a painting, reversing the direction of movement, adding color, and assigning to the new canvas the sentimental title, “Homeward Bound”:



A hearty debate could be launched among readers as to whether the black and white image of “The Race” appropriately conveys the theme of “Train Dreams.” Does the wild horse represent the essential character of Grainier? When asked to describe the inspiration for this print, Benton said it was a “common enough scene in the days of the steam engine” to see “horses so often run with the steam trains” (but by the 1940s and the advent of diesel engines the phenomenon had ceased). I think the cover illustration fascinates us because of the horse’s devotion to a quixotic pursuit fueled by an urge to outlast the devilish machine nipping at its tail. Is it fair to say a comparable emotion and a comparable pursuit characterized Grainier’s life?

4. Some reviews mention a version of this novella appeared previously. The question arises, Did Johnson make any changes? I was able to compare the text of the just-released book to the text found in the Summer 2002 edition of The Paris Review, at pages 250-312, where the story made its first appearance. The two versions track exactly, paragraph for paragraph. The only edits I spotted are insignificant: in Chapter 2, the original measurements “one-hundred-twelve-foot” and “sixty-foot-deep” have been replaced with their numerical equivalents, “112-foot” and “60-foot-deep”; and, also in Chapter 2, an originally all-caps statement, RIGHT REVEREND RISING ROCKIES!, has been replaced with its lower case equivalent, right reverend rising rockies!


Rilke on Rodin

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011



Here is a volume smartly conceived by its small press publisher, Archipelago Books. The book is nearly square in size to accommodate long-lined text printed on quality paper. It is sturdily bound in a partial cloth binding. This has the look and feel of a gift book, and one with the surprise of sophisticated content. If the editor’s plan was to see what happens when you assemble in one package the work of three powerful communicators — a living master essayist on matters literary, a titanic sculptor who ushered in new forms, and a poet striving to understand and explicate the invisible — that plan succeeds in sparking insights.

The book opens with an Introduction by William Gass, a long-time Rilke maven and an unsparing arbiter of things cultural. Gass stylishly fulfills his setting-the-stage duty. Using multiple perspectives (historical, aesthetic, biographical, psychological) he helps the reader understand why the young poet developed an awed appreciation for Rodin (the man and his work). We learn how Rilke absorbed the sculptor’s personal and aesthetic credo (“il faut travailler, rien de travailler”) with lasting effect on his mature poetic output.

All that Rilke learned from Rodin he expressed to the world in two significant pieces which make up the bulk of this book: an essay written at the very start of his personal association with the elder artist in 1902; and a public lecture written at the end of their relationship in 1907. Daniel Slager provides fine new translations from the German of both of these texts. Also found tucked within the pages of this book are four groups of eight glossy color photographs by Michael Eastman: a total of 32 close-up images of major pieces by Rodin that Rilke (and Gass) discuss.

The book contains 88 pages of text; this modest nominal count is misleading since in fact the material is the equivalent of about 150 pages in a standard-sized book. As a reading experience the book feels large thanks to the breadth of Professor Gass’ encyclopedic observations, paragraph after paragraph, and thanks to the seemingly unstoppable eruption of Rilke’s insights, sentence after sentence. Rilke reconnoiters the mountain of Rodin, tossing off witticisms (“Fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name”), evocative imagery (on The Burgher of Calais: “The figures withdraw within themselves, curling up like burning paper”), and grand judgments (“The artist’s task consists of making a world from the smallest part of a thing”). There are extended passages, describing pieces of art and art making, in which Rilke’s prose itself achieves a mountainous beauty.

True, the pieces that make up this assemblage are available elsewhere: Rilke’s essays are available in other volumes (for example, Where Silence Reigns: Selected Prose); Gass’s Introduction is reprinted in his book of essays, A Temple of Texts (American Literature Series); and there are many illustrated art books devoted to Rodin’s work. But as a package, I consider this particular book to be a fine and rewarding enterprise.