Think of the spare straight lines of a Grant Wood engraving. Denis Johnson's striking new short novel about life, fate and death in the early 20th-century American mountain West, leaves that impression — plain yet stark in its depiction of an ordinary man's life both particular and universal. And think of the compactness and pacing of Jim Harrison's masterly novella Legends of the Fall and you'll also gain some idea of what it's like to read Train Dreams. Johnson borrows something of his technique from Harrison, a device I would call emotive exposition, which lends declarative statements of fact a certain kind of dramatic force, and harks back to the work of Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson.
Here's what Johnson does, as in, for example, the opening paragraphs of Train Dreams:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle. ... Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restrain and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack ...
The matter-of-factness of the first couple of sentences about the everyday cruelty of the American frontier partakes of the seeming impartiality and declarative truth of a newspaper account. The shift in the third sentence to the sounds made by the would-be victim eases us, without any difficulty at all, from the realm of the factual to the realm of the dramatic. Johnson works the story of Grainier's un-self-examined life in this same way, from his life laboring on the railroad, clearing forests for track, to his courtship, marriage, his mourning for the wife and child he loses in a huge fire, his eventual work as a hauler and, late in life, in town.
Johnson deploys paragraph upon paragraph and scene upon scene in a fashion similar to the way in which, we hear, Grainier himself rebuilds in the Moyea Valley, where before the terrible fire he enjoyed a simple but pleasing domestic life:
He built his cabin about eighteen by eighteen, laying out lines, making a foundation of stones in a ditch knee-deep to get down below the frost line, scribing and hewing the logs to keep each one flush against the next, hacking notches, getting his back under the higher ones to lift them into place. In a month he'd raised four walls nearly eight feet in height ...
What seems merely descriptive here becomes emotionally evocative. We sense that Grainier is not just rebuilding a structure but attempting to reconstruct his life.
In the same fashion, Johnson gives us passages from the natural world, as in the following excerpt in which we see the valley coming back after the devastating fire, that evoke more than just themselves:
Animals had returned to what was left of the forest ... clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees. More bears than people traveled the muddy road, leaving tracks straight up and down the middle of it. ... Fireweed and jack pine stood up about thigh high. A mustard-tinted fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up ...
In this way, Johnson beautifully conveys what he calls "the steadying loneliness" of most of Grainier's life, the ordinary adventures of a simple man whose people are, we hear, "the hard people of the northwestern mountains," and toward the end even convinces us of his character's inquisitive and perhaps even deeper nature than we might first have imagined. Grainier "lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s," we learn. Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will find him living on.