Here’s the beginning:
“In the summer of 1917 Robert Granier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese labourer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.’
So much is already there. The protagonist’s unforgettable name (so close to the earthbound, sublunary word “grain”), the date of the proceedings, their location, and a certain laconic tone (“took part in an attempt on the life of…”) that seethes, under its sang-froid, with directionless intensity. See how much the times are frayed and nearly undone by the phrase “…caught, or anyway accused of….” Note how the single word “anyway” sets the incident tremblingly within the open, shifting, irresolute world-understanding of Johnson’s hero-to-come: Robert Granier is being awkwardly born into Train Dreams though the portal of that tattered word, “anyway.”
Chapters often begin with magical, inexplicable sentences: “When a child, Grainier had been sent by himself to Idaho” (chapter 3)/
Here is Robert Grainier falling in love, kissing, for the first time, Gladys, his future wife:
“Ow,” she said. “You got mouth flat against my teeth.”
“Are you sorry?”
“No. Do it again. But easy does it.”
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him….” (p.39)
There’s no kissing like this anywhere else in literature.
It is followed immediately, and for the next seventeen pages, by the forest fire that kills his wife and daughter (Johnson takes us from his first Gladys kiss to several years of marriage and the birth of a daughter in the turn of a page). This horrifying fire is the centrepiece of the book, a hinge, a pivot (Train Dreams is a novella; it’s only 116 pages long). It’s a truly astonishing, hair-raising performance in prose—a sort of slow-motion prose ballet.
Think of setting out to write it. How to begin? Where to finish? What to include? It’s a raging forest-fire. Flames leaping from tree to tree? Terrified animals running away?
As it happens, Grainier hears about the fire when he retyuerhs from a trip away, and then sets out to walk slowly into it, in search of his home and family:
“Grainier walked the twenty miles out along the Moyea River Road towards his home with a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth to strain the smoke, stopping to wet it often in the river, passing through a silvery snow of ash” (p. 41).
He revisits the remains of his family’s cabin:
“As soon as he entered the remains he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away. He drove through a layer if ash deep enough, in some places, that he couldn’t make out the roadbed any better than if he’d driven through winter snows. Only the fastest animals and those with wings could have escaped this feasting fire” (p. 44).
This feasting fire. It’s para-biblical.
This may not be the place (but I don’t care) to talk about Grainier’s feverish waking dream (“this roaring dream”) of his daughter Kate (nowhere may be the place) who, somehow having escaped the fire, or her appearance, later, as the wolf-girl, a sentient, hurt creature lying whimpering on his cabin floor.
“The wolf-girl waited, shot full of animal dread and perfectly still, moving nothing but her eyes, following his every move but not meeting his gaze, the breathy smoking before her nostrils.
“Kate?” he said, “Is it you?” But it was.
Nothing about her told him that. He simply knew it. This was his daughter….” (p.103).
There’s nothing like it anywhere.