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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Train Dreams: A Novella

Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

Book descriptions can be misleading.  I mean, let's be honest, the publisher is trying to sell a book here.  So let me just say that the summary for Train Dreams is flawed.  “Epic in miniature:” it is certainly miniature.  While its premise had potential to elicit some kind of response from the reader, it fails to be “evocative and poignant.”   “Radical,” “otherworldly,” and “rugged” it is not.  The description is not completely inaccurate, however.  One line, “an ordinary man in extraordinary times,” most accurately describes this story.

Set against a wonderful backdrop of “extraordinary times” and places, Train Dreams has considerable promise.  If the book harnessed this potential, and fulfilled its claim that the author “captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life,” it could possibly be a good story.  Using Johnson's title as an analogy, the book refuses to board the train that takes us through this scenic and potentially exciting story, rather choosing to watch train's steam rise above the valley from afar.

The problem largely resides in the fact that Johnson is telling a story here.  There is little else.  I never identify with Robert Grainer.  I don't feel for him nor sympathize with his plight.  A large part of this distance is the character of Grainer, a man who lives in a time and place where he is expected to be rugged.  Yes, Grainer is a little rugged; at the same time, I sensed the character wanted to be more emotional than his author would allow him to be.  Grainer never steps past being an “ordinary man.”

I never had a clear sense of development in the story's arch or in its protagonist.  I couldn't get into it.  Many times, my mind wandered.  In short, Train Dreams is a good story, but nothing more.  It's the sort of story you expect to hear your grandfather tell while sitting on a stuffy couch in the evening hours of Thanksgiving Day.  Therefore, if you're looking for more “stuffing” for your reading list, I'd go for Train Dreams.  It's not a bad story, it just smells a little too much of grandpa.