Paperback review: Train Dreams, By Denis Johnson


This superb novella, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, feels like a doorstopper, so huge is it in its concerns.

Yet its economy of language and force of emotion give Denis Johnson's work the quick shot of intensity that a short story has. Robert Grainier has nothing but what he can do with his own bare hands: he is orphaned when young, his wife and child die in a forest fire, and even homeless dogs aren't sure if they can commit to him for a lifetime. This story is about the ephemerality of life, a theme nicely juxtaposed by what Grainier does for a living, building structures that are meant to stand the test of time. He is by nature a loner, then, colliding occasionally with other human beings as the century wears on, becoming a symbol, almost, for modern life.