Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – A Book Review

I’ve enjoyed short novellas all summer that were recommended by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” I just finished my favorite one yet – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I find it very hard to believe this book is only 116 pages. Though I flew through it, I literally felt as though I had lived a lifetime alongside the protagonist, Robert Grainer.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Grainer is an outdoorsman accustomed to working on bridges, in the woods, with animals, and under consistently harsh conditions. He ranges throughout the northwest during his early life but does indeed eventually settle down as circumstances dictate. Grainer is an unassuming man, a capable man, and a man who wants to be moral even while acknowledging he sometimes isn’t. Grainer suffers horrific tragedy throughout his life, yet he persists.

As I said, though the book is only 116 pages, we experience flashes of Grainer’s life in potent, concise, brilliantly constructed vignettes. “Epic” seems an improbable word to use in describing such a brief work, but I can’t help admitting that “epic” is the first word that comes to mind while trying to describe Train Dreams.

Sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutally realistic, Train Dreams is easily counted among my favorite reads of late. I look forward to finding more works by Denis Johnson.

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