This is the story of Robert Grainier, an itinerant worker in the American West at the start of the twentieth century. He fells trees, joins gangs that build bridges across deep valleys for the coming railways. He’s a man of uncertain origins – an orphan? – and a man of few words. He marries late and has child, building a log cabin out in the woods.
So far, so unremarkable? Except strange and horrific things occur in Grainier’s life. Through a combination of spare prose, moments of lyric intensity and laconic dialogue Johnson imbues each episode with a veracity that, at times, makes this feel as if it is fiction wrought from the researched facts of someone’s life.
The context for Granier’s story is vividly evoked - the landcapes of Washington State, Idaho, Wyoming at a time of transition from the pioneer, ‘Wild West’ days, to the coming of railways and modernity. As Granier’s life plays out the twentieth century gathers pace around him. Early on he sleeps in a tent left over from the Civil War, yet towards the end sees Elvis Presley waving from a train.
I recently saw an exhibition that explored Henri Cartier
Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment in photography - that second when the
photographer captures a potent image full of story, inviting the viewer to
extrapolate backwards and forwards from it. Each of the episodes in Train
Dreams is a decisive moment in Grainier’s life. Johnson depicts each one as
sparingly but as potently as is possible.
From this material he could have created a 500 page epic. Instead, by moving through selected incidents, vividly shown, Johnson packs the life into under 120 pages. Is this a novella, a collection of linked short stories or a novel? It’s an epic in miniature. The climax, when it comes, is breathtaking, heartbreaking. I felt I should have seen it coming. The brilliance of this book is that I didn’t. It’s impact stayed with me for days.