Train Dreams

Hobo on train tracks

Train Dreams offers us a view of a vanished and forgotten pioneer America through its protagonist Grainier. He lives through much of the twentieth century but his twentieth century is rather different from that you’ll find in the History Channel. The Great War, The Beatles, Roosevelt, Hiroshima, Martin Luther King and D-Day never happened in Grainier’s world. He lives out in the remote Northwest never living far from the train tracks on which run the Spokane International express that goes from Idaho to Washington State.

His world is full of Indian superstitions where wolf boys roam but in this world the possibility of the supernatural seems strangely possible.

It’s the outside world that seems fictitious with its flying machines and Elvis Presley.


Much of the time Grainier is working on jobs that will make this untrammelled wilderness obsolete as if he is the ally of his own gravediggers. We might mourn it’s passing but also acknowledge that this world in which he chooses to live like a virtual hermit, is cruel and savage as well as beautiful.

It is a world that that creates the fire that takes away his wife and daughter and wrecks his body with it is demand for hard physical labor.

In wilderness maybe the preservation of the world but it also contains the destruction of a man.

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson

The language is terse but the images often darkly poetic. In one episode an Indian gets drunk and is run over by several trains, his body collected in small pouches by his tribe. In another a biplane arrives and for the unseemly cost of $4 dollars confers upon Grainier the magic of flight.

Interspersed with these powerfully poetic moments are passages of comedy where back woodsman clumsily attempt to ask women for their hands in marriage and a ‘Palace of Pulchritude’ arrives with a dark offering of welcome sin.

It’s a wholly self-contained and believable world that tells you more about pioneer America in 116  pages than most authors could manage in a 1000.

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