Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

So I’m working my way through the ill-fated 2012 Pulitzer finalists- you know, the ones that became entangled in controversy when no prize was awarded earlier this year? I took a look at Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!  here. And today I dig into Denis Johnson’s much-acclaimed novella, Train Dreams,  the story of a day-laborer in the American West named Robert Grainier.

I should say up front that I’m not disparaging the writing, which was more than capable. After all, Johnson’s the National Book Award Winning author of Tree of Smoke, which is high on my future reads wishlist.  Rather, I’ve got a bone to pick with the lack of “evocative and poignant fiction” that I was promised by reviewers and blurb writers. Is this book truly “an epic in miniature” as they claim?

Well, it is miniature. And it does cover the span of a lifetime. But in creating such a spare and economical work, it seems Johnson has cut out all the emotional impact of the story along with any semblance of a rewarding plot structure.

There was just... not much there. This book felt less like a well-crafted piece of fiction than the kind of cursory memoir that people goad their aging parents into penning for posterity. It was a list of memorable events, sure, but there was no discernible theme stringing them together. It didn’t really say  or mean  anything to me.

I guess there’s something to be gleaned about the crazy cast of characters who won the American West, and the sometimes inexplicable reasons they held their ground in the face of untold hardships. But I just wasn’t carried away like the advance press said I would be. It was okay. But I don’t think okay is good enough these days. Not for a major prize, anyway.

I didn’t even really care when the main character’s wife and baby daughter were consumed in a forest fire, because I didn’t feel like I knew them at all. I didn’t even know anything about him  except that he worked as a logger and had once wanted to throw a spastic Chinese railroad laborer off a bridge.

I don’t know. The more 2012 Pulitzer finalists I get to know, the more I think the jury got it right by not awarding a prize. That should be a pretty high bar to clear. Maybe the Pale King  still has a case that it was jobbed, but Swamplandia!  and Train Dreams  haven’t given me too much hope.

Anybody disagree?

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