Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a novella that captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life. It follows Robert Grainier, an orphan living in Idaho from 1890 to 1960, and explores themes of isolation, the closing of the American West, the joy of a simple life, and perseverance through man’s fundamental alienation. The book is written in a historical fiction genre and is filled with evocative language that describes the brutality of entwined natural and human forces.

The story begins with Grainier as a young boy, living in the wilderness of Idaho and working for the railroad gang. After a murder attempt, he buys a soda for his wife and child and takes on more risky jobs with the railroad gang to test out how well the brakes work. As the years pass, Grainier experiences the changing landscape of the American West, from the introduction of trains to the destruction of the forests. He also encounters a variety of characters, including the world’s fattest man in a carnival side-show and Elvis Presley on a broken-down train.

Throughout the story, Johnson uses dogs as a symbol of the wilderness we tamed. The train itself is an interesting central anchor for a book about being disappointed with progress. The train was both the realization and the destruction of the pioneer dream. It was the engine that brought us to the Pacific en masse. But when you can get there in three days in a dress, what’s the point?

Train Dreams is a beautiful and haunting exploration of the classic American myth. It is a portrait of the West when we were rich, cocky, and our destiny had manifested, but told through the eyes of Grainier, who is humble, ungreedy, and unsure of himself. The book is filled with vivid imagery and evocative language that captures the beauty and tragedy of the American West.

What I Liked

Lovely novel, lovely setting.

What I Did Not Like

So much symbolism. I wouldn’t change the book, but I think half of it went over my head when I first read it.

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