Many nights they heard the northbound Spokane International train as it passed through Meadow Creek, two miles down the valley. Tonight the distant whistle woke him, and he found himself alone in the straw bed.
Gladys was up with Katie, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.
“How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog-pup, do you suppose?”
“A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away,” Gladys said.
He waited for her to explain what this meant. She often thought ahead of him.
“A man-child couldn’t do it that way,” she said, “just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too – as many as a baby.”
“How many words, Gladys?”
“You know,” she said, “the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do.”
“Just say some of the words, Glad.” It was dark, and he wanted to keep hearing her voice.
“Well, fetch, and come, and sit and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words.”
In the dark he felt his daughter’s eyes turned on him like a cornered brute’s. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
All his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night. (pg. 8-9)
Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson was one of three finalists which was declined by the 2012 Pulitzer Jury with the other two being Swamplandia and The Pale King. Evidently the jury could not reach a majority vote on any of the three hence no Fiction Pulitzer was awarded for the year. I picked it up at the library on a whim to see at least what some of the fuss was about.
Robert Grainer is a day laborer working on the railroad or in a logging camp in the early 1900’s. He came to the Northwest as a youth, an orphan placed on a train west to make his way as best he could to an aunt and uncle in Idaho. Robert eventually marries and has a baby daughter. He and is family homestead in an isolated valley north of Sandpoint, Idaho. Robert spends his time away to earn a living, traveling back to his family on a train. Robert loses his family, goes a little crazy, recovers, and lives the rest of his long life as himself – just as he is. All in ninety pages.
The book gives a history of the Northwest, of America, of technology in spare but evocative language centered around a loner, a hermit at times, who is just as spare in his language as the author is in his writing. Throughout his life, Grainer is troubled by an event he participated in – the attempted killing of a Chinese laboring to build the railway. The laborer escapes cursing as he flees. These curses haunt Grainer as surely as the train whistles he hears even in his sleep.
This book has a lot going for it that I love in books – it is spare and descriptive. It is more about character than plot. It touches upon the theme of memory and the theme of loneliness – both internal and external. It is set in the area of the country in which I live – many of the places mention I have been to or seen (in my case from a car window instead of a train). It is extremely well crafted with each word having a rightful place in the structure.
And yet, the book made me uncomfortable and I am not sure I liked it. I haven’t been able to figure out why. I don’t think it is gender based (i.e. this is a book more suited for men) because, for one thing, women have liked it. Ann Patchett says in her New York Times Op Ed about the Pulitzer indecision, ““I don’t think there is a sentence in that book that isn’t perfectly made…” And Kate Tuttle of Boston.Com (The Boston Globe) calls Train Dreams, “a meditative, often magical book.”
It is an intense book but I have liked intense books before. It is a violent book although more violent in spirit than deed. And I generally don’t have a problem with that. Each hint or act of violence fit seamlessly into the story line and was also balanced by touches of tenderness. The relationship between Grainer and his wife is particularly touching. Anthony Doerr speaks of Johnson’s ability to balance in his review in the NY Times writing, “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.” Perhaps it was its starkness, Johnson has a way of stripping things to a bareness which goes beyond spare.
So after much reflection , I have come to the conclusion that I may not know why this isn’t my book. I can tell you that its positive attributes are clearly prevalent, attributes that I can appreciate and I am glad I read it. And while it didn’t suit me, I can recommend it. Perhaps the Pulitzer jury also had a similar ambivalence regarding the book…I haven’t read the other two selections so I cannot compare the three works together. Has anyone read all three or any? What is your opinion?
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