Christopher Owens 🔖Life, It’s A Shame.


Complicated, filled with regrets and loose ends, we selectively edit it to make it seem a lot more considered and streamlined. But the best fiction focuses in on the loose ends and tries to figure out the implications.

Originally published in 2002 as a short story, the late (and much lamented) Denis Johnson published Train Dreams as a novella in 2011. On the face of it, Johnson delivers a very simple story about the life and times of Robert Grainer.

Bu there’s so much more to this beautiful, stately and desperately sad tale than that one-line description.

The messy and unpredictable nature of life is also showcased here in stark, humbling ways: the opening pages see Grainer partake in the attack of a Chinese labourer who has been accused of stealing. Although he escapes, Grainer can’t help but feel that he has been cursed. However, the labourer doesn’t appear again and, even whenever Grainer’s wife and child are presumed to have been killed in a fire, the supposed curse is not mentioned. There are no grand patterns, no central piece to make sense of. Just an ordinary man going through life.

What really lies at the heart of this book is the endless cycle of modernity and how it is in contrast with nature. Grainer works outdoors for twenty years of his life and by his late thirties:

His elbows cracked loudly when he straightened his arms, and something hitched and snapped in his right shoulder when he moved it the wrong way; a general stiffness of his frame worked itself out by halves through most mornings, and he labored like an engine through the afternoons . . . he really wasn't much good in the woods anymore.

By contrast, nature is an ever-present force that Grainer wrestles with. As Johnson writes:

All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

Contrasting sharply with this idea of nature being all encompassing is Johnson’s depiction of Grainer as a simple, ordinary man. He’s not a naïve buffoon like Forrest Gump, nor is he an under the thumb intellectual like T.S Garp. Rather, he is akin to the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: beaten down but stoic. An orphan who has been told several different versions of his family history, Grainer understands that he is a very small cog in the machinery of life but, as he gets older, the machinery is updated until his piece is made obsolete. He views the changing world with wide eyed wonder, until it becomes a place he no longer understands, but still wishes to partake in it from time to time, summed up perfectly by this quote:

Grainier still went to services some rare times, when a trip to town coincided. People spoke nicely to him there, people recognized him from the days when he'd attended almost regularly with Gladys, but he generally regretted going. He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.

Simple yet complex, bare in details yet rich in emotion, Train Dreams is a masterpiece.

Denis Johnson, 2011, Train Dreams. Granta Books. ISBN-13: 978-1783787623

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.

Train Dreams

Christopher Owens 🔖Life, It’s A Shame.


Complicated, filled with regrets and loose ends, we selectively edit it to make it seem a lot more considered and streamlined. But the best fiction focuses in on the loose ends and tries to figure out the implications.

Originally published in 2002 as a short story, the late (and much lamented) Denis Johnson published Train Dreams as a novella in 2011. On the face of it, Johnson delivers a very simple story about the life and times of Robert Grainer.

Bu there’s so much more to this beautiful, stately and desperately sad tale than that one-line description.

The messy and unpredictable nature of life is also showcased here in stark, humbling ways: the opening pages see Grainer partake in the attack of a Chinese labourer who has been accused of stealing. Although he escapes, Grainer can’t help but feel that he has been cursed. However, the labourer doesn’t appear again and, even whenever Grainer’s wife and child are presumed to have been killed in a fire, the supposed curse is not mentioned. There are no grand patterns, no central piece to make sense of. Just an ordinary man going through life.

What really lies at the heart of this book is the endless cycle of modernity and how it is in contrast with nature. Grainer works outdoors for twenty years of his life and by his late thirties:

His elbows cracked loudly when he straightened his arms, and something hitched and snapped in his right shoulder when he moved it the wrong way; a general stiffness of his frame worked itself out by halves through most mornings, and he labored like an engine through the afternoons . . . he really wasn't much good in the woods anymore.

By contrast, nature is an ever-present force that Grainer wrestles with. As Johnson writes:

All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

Contrasting sharply with this idea of nature being all encompassing is Johnson’s depiction of Grainer as a simple, ordinary man. He’s not a naïve buffoon like Forrest Gump, nor is he an under the thumb intellectual like T.S Garp. Rather, he is akin to the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: beaten down but stoic. An orphan who has been told several different versions of his family history, Grainer understands that he is a very small cog in the machinery of life but, as he gets older, the machinery is updated until his piece is made obsolete. He views the changing world with wide eyed wonder, until it becomes a place he no longer understands, but still wishes to partake in it from time to time, summed up perfectly by this quote:

Grainier still went to services some rare times, when a trip to town coincided. People spoke nicely to him there, people recognized him from the days when he'd attended almost regularly with Gladys, but he generally regretted going. He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.

Simple yet complex, bare in details yet rich in emotion, Train Dreams is a masterpiece.

Denis Johnson, 2011, Train Dreams. Granta Books. ISBN-13: 978-1783787623

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.

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