I steal books. It doesn’t happen often and if possible, I make a confession, appealing to the owner’s sympathies and good will. I replace the books when I can, though one librarian was not happy about it. The surroundings have as much to do with it as the writing and I think of books that way, where I found them, who owned them, what I was doing.
This summer I discovered Denis Johnson’s writing at a great camp in the Adirondacks, a lake house tucked in the wood line along Crescent Bay with dockside views of purple and orange sunsets and sounds of the loon across the water. The slim gray spine with white letters was wedged between Tom Clancy and a volume on uppity women, and it looked and felt like poetry, a gem on a pressed wood shelf. The Name of the World was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award. The book was worth the heist: lyrical and lovely and gripping and I wrote in it, tabbed it, made it mine. The pages were brown with age along the edges and it was unmarked and clean, perhaps never read. I mailed the owner a new copy.
Denis Johnson is an American writer who has won the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke and whose book Train Dreams was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. The panel did not choose a winner that year and perhaps length was a factor. Train Dreams weighs in at 116 pages, but packs a hard punch for its size, a lightweight champion.
A masterpiece in miniature.
The story follows the life of Robert Grainier from unknown beginnings into the American West at the turn of the twentieth century. He’s a simple man with little ambition whose long life is punctuated with stark realities and human drama. He makes bad decisions, suffers great personal loss, and struggles to rebuild his life. He remembers arriving on a train, but he’s not sure.
All three of his cousins agreed Grainier had come on a train. How had he lost his original parents? Nobody ever told him.
. . . As far as he could ever fix it, he’d been born sometime in 1886, either in Utah or in Canada, and had found his way to his new family on the Great Northern Railroad. (p.25)
Memory plays tricks on us, a universal experience which resurfaces throughout the narrative. Who were his parents? how did he arrive? The reader is propelled along like the train, in and out of places, in and out of scenes and dreams.
The writing is spare, powerful, and authentic. The people are people, not just characters in a book; they are full and flawed, and as a reader, I see them as if I were there. The story opens with a Chinese railroad hand Grainier almost kills, a scene that haunts him throughout his life.
Johnson describes Grainier at the end of the book.
Grainier himself lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s. In his time he’d traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he’d never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana. He’d had one lover – his wife, Gladys – owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once in an aircraft. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him. (p. 113)
Johnson creates a picture of America, its western heritage, and one man’s life. It was simple and forgotten, but it was not without love, fire, grief, triumph, and despair.