Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize nominated Train Dreams is the life story of a man called Robert Grainier, who “started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.” It’s a look at this working man’s life from birth to death, more or less. The death is in November 1968, but the birth is just assumed to be in around 1886, and again assumed to be in either Canada or Utah. It’s significant that the details of one are fixed and not the other, because it’s an indication that Grainier’s life spans an era when America changed drastically.
This is a process that Grainier helps along when he labours to build enormous train bridges, or to cut down forests. He marries, he has a child, but significant plot twists change this situation. It’s a hard story to categorise, and the better for that, where the plot is a life and one that struggles with the modern world – there’s a significant scene where Grainier takes and dislikes a flight in a biplane – and yet isn’t overcome by it. This is a short, excellent book, with a poetic quality that makes it oddly gripping. [David Agnew]