By Heidi Simmons
If you are not familiar with author Denis Johnson, you should be. He is one of America’s great literary talents. Johnson writes far beyond character, place and story. His genius is his ability to convey unsaid information. He allows the reader the freedom to engage and interpret the emotion and friction at their discretion. His prose come to life and live on the page as if they always existed, and he has, without judgment or opinion, simply recorded the events for posterity.
Johnson is a poet, novelist and play write. So far, he has written nine works of fiction. In 2007, his novel Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Strause & Giroux, 614 pages) won the National Book Award. He is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Two of Johnson’s shorter works, Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son are arguably his best.
Train Dreams (Picador, 116 pages) is about Robert Grainier, a hardworking frontiersman, who harvests lumber and builds train trestles with a railroad gang at the turn of the 20th century. Working around Idaho’s panhandle, Grainier struggles to make a life in a challenging, difficult world filled with tragedy and obstacles. His character is simple, uncomplicated and sincere. But for a novella, Train Dreams feels like an epic tale.
Early on the narrator says about Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff railway: “made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer deeper.”
Johnson tells Granier’s story like a parable. It is a passing world that exists like a dream. The third person narration enhances Grainier’s lonesome life in the American wilderness. When the reader is informed that Grainier died in 1960, we realize Grainier must have lived several different realities over the decades during the rapid industrialization of the country.
Train Dreams is not about trains, but the railroad is the backdrop of Grainier’s life. As a Canadian orphan, young Grainier arrives alone in Idaho on a train with a note pinned to his shirt. He is haunted by the sad lament of a train whistle as it echoes through the canyon near his cabin, the very place where a forest fire destroyed his home and family. The powerful locomotive is a reminder of the unstoppable growth of a changing landscape and nation.
Train Dreams was first published in The Paris Review, 2002. It was released in hardcover last year, and is now in paperback.
Jesus’ Son (Harper Perennial, 160 pages) is Johnson’s only collection of short stories. There are 11 tales, each told by the same narrator in the first person. They are episodic events in the narrator’s life and the lives of those around him. It is a fragmented glimpse into the world of the dispossessed and marginalized members of our society — especially those who indulge in drugs, fail to maintain sobriety and struggle to make a buck.
Johnson’s writing is reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowsky. It is gritty, rife with fringe characters who are mostly up to no good. They are people who don’t know that they don’t know. Broken, damaged and unlucky, these are folks who have few moments when they are charming, kind and sincere. Adroitly, Johnson gets the reader to empathize with the narrator’s pathology as the character fights to transcend his world and find redemption.
Although we root and hope for his recovery, we sense that ultimately he is doomed:
“Sometimes I heard voices muttering in my head, and a lot of the time the world seemed to smolder around the edges. But I was in a little better physical shape every day, I was getting my looks back, and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me. All these weirdos, and me getting a little better right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
The title, Jesus’ Son is a line from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin.” The title is nowhere in the text. Reed’s lyrics begin: “I don’t know just where I’m going/ but I’m going to try for the kingdom, if I can/ ‘cause it makes me feel like a man.” Maybe Johnson’s point is that we are all trying for the “kingdom.” That we are all part of the grand human experience and desire to leave a mark in this world — some residue of our existence.
Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son are books you can read in one sitting. Johnson is a minimalist. There is nothing over-written in these stories that linger. It is rare when a book helps us reconsider the world around us: the people, our place in time and our humanity. Both books are worth considering for easy, but memorable, summer reading.