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Train Dreams: A Novella

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Train Dreams: A Novella Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Train Dreams
 
1
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainier, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit's bare feet. The man facing him, Mr. Sears, of Spokane International's management, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: "Boys, I'm damned if we ever see the top of this heap!" Then we're hauling him all the way? was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.
They came abreast of the others, a gang of a dozen men pausing in the sun to lean on their tools and wipe at sweat and watch this thing. Grainier held on convulsively to the Chinaman's horny foot, wondering at himself, and the man with the other foot let loose and sat down gasping in the dirt and got himself kicked in the eye before Grainier took charge of the free-flailing limb. "It was just for fun. For fun," the man sitting in the dirt said, and to his confederate there he said, "Come on, Jel Toomis, let's give it up." "I can't let loose," this Mr. Toomis said, "I'm the one's got him by the neck!" and laughed with a gust of confusion passing across his features. "Well, I've got him!" Grainier said, catching both the little demon's feet tighter in his embrace. "I've got the bastard, and I'm your man!"
The party of executioners got to the midst of the last completed span, sixty feet above the rapids, and made every effort to toss the Chinaman over. But he bested them by clinging to their arms and legs, weeping his gibberish, until suddenly he let go and grabbed the beam beneath him with one hand. He kicked free of his captors easily, as they were trying to shed themselves of him anyway, and went over the side, dangling over the gorge and making hand-over-hand out over the river on the skeleton form of the next span. Mr. Toomis's companion rushed over now, balancing on a beam, kicking at the fellow's fingers. The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while others, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped. Mr. Sears removed from the holster on his belt a large old four-shot black-powder revolver and took his four, to no effect. By then the Chinaman had vanished.

 

 

Hiking to his home after this incident, Grainier detoured two miles to the store at the railroad village of Meadow Creek to get a bottle of Hood's Sarsaparilla for his wife, Gladys, and their infant daughter, Kate. It was hot going up the hill through the woods toward the cabin, and before getting the last mile he stopped and bathed in the river, the Moyea, at a deep place upstream from the village.
It was Saturday night, and in preparation for the evening a number of the railroad gang from Meadow Creek were gathered at the hole, bathing with their clothes on and sitting themselves out on the rocks to dry before the last of the daylight left the canyon. The men left their shoes and boots aside and waded in slowly up to their shoulders, whooping and splashing. Many of the men already sipped whiskey from flasks as they sat shivering after their ablutions. Here and there an arm and hand clutching a shabby hat jutted from the surface while somebody got his head wet. Grainier recognized nobody and stayed off by himself and kept a close eye on his boots and his bottle of sarsaparilla.
Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.

 

 

He gave the Hood's to Gladys. She sat up in bed by the stove, nursing the baby at her breast, down with a case of the salt rheum. She could easily have braved it and done her washing and cut up potatoes and trout for supper, but it was their custom to let her lie up with a bottle or two of the sweet-tasting Hood's tonic when her head ached and her nose stopped, and get a holiday from such chores. Grainier's baby daughter, too, looked rheumy. Her eyes were a bit crusted and the discharge bubbled pendulously at her nostrils while she suckled and snorted at her mother's breast. Kate was four months old, still entirely bald. She did not seem to recognize him. Her little illness wouldn't hurt her as long as she didn't develop a cough out of it.
Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they'd gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he'd cursed them.
He sat on the edge of the bed.
"Thank you, Bob," his wife said.
"Do you like your sarsaparilla?"
"I do. Yes, Bob."
"Do you suppose little Kate can taste it out your teat?"
"Of course she can."

 

 

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 Kate, 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 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 of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.
Copyright © 2002 by Denis Johnson

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Gregg Narber, January 21, 2012 (view all comments by Gregg Narber)
An elegiac account of a life that would normally go or have gone unnoticed, both now and in the period of the book (the late settlement of the American West). James Agee did something similar in the Depression with "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" -- his subjects the lowest of the low among Alabama sharecroppers. Johnson does the same for his protagonist, with all of Agee's poetry and none of Agee's self-absorbtion. That nobody who hauls things for hire in his wagon wants the same things we all do -- love, children, a roof over his head -- and contributes to keep the planet spinning in some small way: here to settling the West. A book moving beyond all expectation.
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richard chen, January 4, 2012 (view all comments by richard chen)
Capturing a way of life which is often merely dreamt of in Western America, the writing style provokes the soul into going West to loosen oneself. The imagery of community, land and inner discovery play finely against each other in this simple but moving story. The power of simple beauty is moving. It is difficult to convey the weight of emotion in words in this mere review except to say Denis has done a fine job thereof.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374281144
Author:
Johnson, Denis
Publisher:
Farrar Straus Giroux
Author:
Bass, Rick
Author:
Rock, Peter
Author:
Patton, Will
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Historical
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20110831
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
1 piece of line art
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
7.5 x 5 in

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Train Dreams: A Novella Used Hardcover
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Product details 336 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374281144 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume — a reissue of a 2003 O. Henry Prize — winning novella that originally appeared in the Paris Review — but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson's epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus' Son. The story is a snapshot of early 20th-century America as railroad laborer Robert Granier toils along the rails that will connect the states and transform his itinerant way of life. Drinking in tent towns and spending summers in the wilds of Idaho, Granier misses the fire back home that leaves no trace of his wife and child. The years bring diminishing opportunities, strange encounters, and stranger dreams, but it's not until after participating in the miracle of flight — and a life-changing encounter with a mythical monster — that Granier realizes what he's been looking for. An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "[A] severely lovely tale...The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson's deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured. I started reading Train Dreams with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story's unaffected tact and honesty...Any writer can use simple prose to describe the raising of a cabin or the cutting down of tress, but only very good writers can use that prose to build a sense of an entire community, and to convey, without condescension, that this community shares some of the simplicity of the prose. Chekhov could do this, Naipaul does it in his early work about Trinidad, and Johnson does it here, often using an unobtrusive, free indirect style to inhabit the limited horizons of his characters...A way of being, a whole community, has now disappeared from view, and is given brief and eloquent expression here."
"Review" by , "National Book Award winner Johnson has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer....The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers....Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "I first read Denis Johnson's Train Dreams in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery....Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I'd page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson's evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive....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...it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written."
"Synopsis" by , Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
"Synopsis" by ,
Denis Johnsons Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
"Synopsis" by ,

A masterfully crafted novel of seekers that spans three generations set amidst the harsh terrain of West Texas.

"Synopsis" by , Francine and Colville were childhood friends whose families belonged to an extreme religion, the Church Universal and Triumphant, whose members built elaborate underground shelters to protect themselves from a nuclear apocalypse that never came. Reunited twenty years later by the search for an abducted girl, Francine and Colville must reckon with the powerful memories of their former church's teachings, and the haunting feeling of leading adult lives in a world they once believed would be destroyed.
"Synopsis" by ,
An American original, Peter Rock brings our strangest beliefs to vivid and sympathetic life in this haunting novel inspired by true events.

The Shelter Cycle tells the story of two children, Francine and Colville, who grew up in the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion that predicted the world could end in the late 1980s. While their parents built underground shelters to withstand the impending Soviet missile strike, Francine and Colville played in the Montana wilderness, where invisible spirits watched over them. When the prophesized apocalypse did not occur, the sectand#8217;s members resurfaced and the children were forced to grow up in a world they believed might no longer exist.

Twenty years later, Francine and Colville are reunited while searching for an abducted girl. Haunted by memories and inculcated beliefs, they must confront the Churchand#8217;s teachings. If all the things they were raised to believe were misguided, why then do they suddenly feel so true?

"Synopsis" by ,
A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings

Rick Bass brings a lyrical lushness to the harsh backdrop of West Texas in his masterfully crafted fourth novel. All the Land to Hold Us is a sweeping tale of those who live on the desert’s edge, where riches—precious artifacts, oil, water, love—can all be found and lost again in an instant.

Roaming across the salt flats and skirting the salt lake, Richard, a geologist working for an oil company, hunts for fossils under the spell of Clarissa, the local beauty who plans to use her share of their plunder to get out of small, dusty Midland for good. A generation earlier, a Depression-era couple, Max and Marie Omo, numbly mines for salt along the banks of the briny lake until the emotional terrain of their marriage is suddenly and irrevocably altered. The strange, surreal arrival of a runaway circus elephant, careening across the sand, sets in motion Marie’s final break from Max and heralds the beginning of her second chance. Consequences reverberate through the years and the dunes when Marie becomes indelibly linked to Richard’s own second act.

With a cast of characters rounded out by a one-legged-treasure-hunter, a renegade teacher, and an unforgettable elephant trainer, All the Land to Hold Us is a vivid portrait of a fierce place and the inimitable characters that possess the capacity to adapt to and also despoil it. The novel boasts all the hallmarks of Bass’s most enduring work—human longing and greed, nature endangered, and the possibility for redemption are all writ large on his desert canvas.

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