Denis Johnson occupies an obscure place in contemporary American literature, caught somewhere between the quiet working class tragedies of Raymond Carver and the solemn Westerns of Cormac McCarthy. His novels are slippery things that make gestures toward profound implications, which they never reach, at least not explicitly. Likewise, his characters are usually meandering wanderers in the Western drifter mould, strung up on drugs and alcohol or cast into the indefinable frontier space, upon which so much of American mythology is based. This was evident in his two most celebrated works, the short story collection Jesus’ Son, which was made into a film of the same name, and the 2007 National Book Award winning novel Tree of Smoke. This enigmatic quality is the source of both the perplexing quality of his fiction and its particular pleasures. The power of Johnson’s works is atmospheric rather than literal; it’s an evocation of some mystic quality, of a nebulous but palpable depth.
This difficulty in pinning Johnson down may explain why his novels have remained cult items, and his following an ardent but small one. It may also go some way to explaining why his 2012 novella Train Dreams was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize but did not win, with the jury taking the inexplicable decision not to award a winner that year.
Train Dreams is a gently captivating work which follows the life of Robert Grainier, a loner and recluse who works on the logging gangs and bridge building teams of the American North West in the early 20th century. Grainier is thus part of the inexorable drive westward, helping to push back the boundaries of this still wild and remote area to accommodate the juggernaut of American expansion. In the early stages of the novella it seems as if this westward expansion, which by Grainier’s time would have almost reached its limit, is the allegorical centre of the novel. Grainier stoically witnesses the indifferent violence which accompanies the march of the train tracks across the frontier, and Johnson echoes the canon of Western authors who have lamented the loss of the wilderness.
However Train Dreams, as with much of Johnson’s work, becomes something weirder as it progresses. The narrative is imbued with a sense of the uncanny as both tragedy and the surreal start to overcome Grainier’s life. His relationship with nature starts to shift as he becomes more of a recluse and the world around him becomes suffused with a mystical quality, one which evokes both awe and dread in Grainier.
‘The wolves and coyotes howled without let up all night,’ he writes, ‘sounding in the hundreds, more than Grainier had ever heard, and maybe other creatures too, owls, eagles — what, exactly, he couldn’t guess — surely every single animal with a voice along the peaks and ridges looking down on the Moyea River, as if nothing could ease any of God’s beasts. Grainier didn’t dare to sleep, feeling it all to be some sort of vast pronouncement, maybe the alarms of the end of the world.’
This sense of the uncanny which both enthrals and frightens Grainier suffuses the narrative with Johnson’s characteristic obscurity. As readers we are left to guess at its narrative significance, as Grainier, an emotive rather than cerebral character does not dwell on the strange happenings around him.
Johnson avoids the grave pomposity to which these themes may lend themselves by maintaining a wry humour throughout. This is evident in the eccentric characters Grainier meets, such as the logger Arn Peoples who claims to have met the Earp brothers and describes them as ‘crazy trash’, or in Grainier’s sudden attack of physical longing, during which he becomes obsessed with ‘pulchritude’.
Johnson’s novel remains enigmatic to the last, as the crescendo like closing passages imply an apotheosis of some sort without divulging its details. The breakdown of Grainer’s simple, rational world with the intrusion of the uncanny leaves him bereft and suffused with doubt and Johnson’s fiction has a similar effect on the reader, who is left questioning how this slim and strange novel leaves such a persistent and mesmeric trace.
By Thomas Storey