Trains tend to have an outsized influence on the imagination of those who get caught in the power of these iron horses. For these people, trains are the hallucinogen that prompts daydreams of riding bullet trains, gliding along mountain rivers or racing through small-town America in a foot-race with the sinking sun.
On a certain level, there is fallacy to these daydreams. In a way not found in other forms of transportation – partially in cars and definitely in planes – a train’s options are set. It is guided by the rails underneath it’s wheels and routes mapped out generations, if not centuries, ago. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. For trains, probably since the day Tom Thumb puttered down the track, being a passenger can be about more than just getting from Point A to Point B. Trains do more than than get us to locations, they can take us to places – in our mind and our memories.
For Robert Grainer, the protagonist of Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams,” the trains that make their way into the Idaho Panhandle serve both purposes in his life. In the most literal sense, as a young child, they bring him to his aunt and uncle after his parent’s death leaves him orphaned. As an adult, he works on the construction of new routes through the mountainous northwest. The train’s whail and rumble are the noises he recall when he thinks back to being in his cabin with his wife and young daughter. It is the train that brings him from his remote cabin to town.
If, in a 116-page novella that deftly chronicles the 80 or so years of the protagonist’s life, trains are the means for which both Granier and story moves, it is death that constantly hovers over, and in some moments, envelopes him. With a structure that jumps to and from different points in Granier’s life, the story opens with a Chinese immigrant just moments away from death at the hands of railroad construction thugs. Even though the Chinese laborer escapes death, this is not a one-off moment Granier has with death. It seems that he is prone to being in the wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to death, except when it matters most – and it is this absence and loss that comes to define Granier the most.
It is a credit to him that in a short 116 pages, Dennis Johnson not only successfully fleshes out Granier and those whose lives briefly intersect his, he also brings the northern reaches of Idaho to life. Even when an epic forest fire rips through his region in the middle of the book, the destruction is immediately evident to the reader in the wake of Johnson’s vivid description of the forests, valleys and towns of Panhandle Idaho.
It was rail that opened up these communities like Granier’s Bonner Falls to the outside world in a way never previously imagined. Towards the end of his life, Granier takes a short flight on airplane while visiting the fair. This flight, and the discomfort it brings, while brief, are a sign that the world Granier has called home is not the long for this world.