Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

I badly want to like Denis Johnson, and I feel worse that I don’t. He’s an American original, crafting interesting novels throughout his long career with a distinct voice and powerful originality, but most of the time, I just don’t get their appeal. Maybe it is just because he is too weird, or he doesn’t utilize his weirdness correctly, I have not given a stellar review to one his novels yet, and to date, I have six of them. But I have come really close with Train Dreams, the brief novella he wrote a few years ago I between Nobody Move and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters, and is my favorite book of his I have read with the expectation of his first novel Angels. It feels like a smaller episode from a book like John Sayles A Moment in the Sun or, more recently, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. It is a startling look at loss, regrets and loneliness set in the early parts of the twentieth century. It’s main character is one Robert Grainer, who we first meet as he is tagging along on an ill-advised lynching. He is a common man, who is too content to let the great moments he has a chance to participate in pass him by and live simply. After his family, dies, he becomes something of a recluse, and the short book chronicles a few moments in his depressing life, from an early act of cowardice involving a dying man, his superficial relationship with those he comes in contact with when he is left alone, and his constant ignorance of his true desires to find love and make life worth living. It ends sadly, with Robert’s bleak fate and a glimpse at one final lost opportunity, but it is a very powerful book, and gives readers a glimpse of a more restrained and focused Johnson that is welcome and refreshing.

Rating: 4/5

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