Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams ” (Picador, $12) is a spare but sprawling novella that deserves to be remembered for what it is rather than what it almost was. The book was among three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012 — the year when, for the first time since 1977, no award was given in that category. None of this should detract from what it delivers: an eloquent portrait of the early 20th-century American West and an affecting tale of one man’s struggle to live with loss.
The story, first published in the Paris Review in 2002, chronicles the life of Robert Grainier, a humble laborer in the Northwest with a deceptively unassuming existence. An orphan sent by train to live with his cousins in Idaho, “his destination pinned to his chest on the back of a store receipt,” he eventually falls into jobs chopping firewood and loading trucks before finding steadier work helping build railroads. He falls in love, marries, has a child, continues his work.
The genius of this book is the slow revelation of his character through events both mundane and shocking. Among the latter is the death of Grainier’s wife and baby daughter in a fire while he’s away on a job. “All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking,” Johnson writes. “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.”
“Train Dreams” is rich with this kind of quiet lyricism, as Johnson manages to conjure up both the particulars of one man’s grief and the portrait of a symbolic everyman.
Johnson, a writer once best known for trippy books like “Jesus’ Son” (1992), won the 2007 National Book Award for “Tree of Smoke,” an expansive novel about Vietnam, and recently flaunted his range with the 2009 crime noir “Nobody Move.” Here, he proves his skill at drawing the kind of grim Americana you might expect from Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx. Indeed, “Train Dreams” has much in common with Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain” — the flinty Western setting, the roiling emotions of a quiet working man — and now, too, a controversy.
From our previous reviews:
In “ The Train of Small Mercies ” (Berkley, $15), David Rowell, an editor of The Washington Post Magazine, unites a wide cast of characters around a single event: the train bearing Robert Kennedy’s body as it made its way from New York to Washington. The quietly affecting novel offers “its own panoramic vision of the optimism and hope engendered by Kennedy’s run for the presidency, and of the deep, confused grief unloosed by his slaying,” wrote Valerie Sayers.
Set in the Dickeyville section of Baltimore, where novelist Laura Lippman grew up, “The Most Dangerous Thing” (William Morrow, $14.99) is both a thriller about a childhood secret that “pops up to wreak havoc on the present” and “a sharply observed cultural chronicle of the 1970s,” noted Maureen Corrigan.
“A World on Fire” (Random House, $20) by Amanda Foreman, “a sprawling drama of British engagement with the American Civil War . . . inserts readers into the drawing rooms, governmental buildings and other sites of discussion, debate and policy-making,” according to Gary W. Gallagher.
Starring “a 26-year-old Albanian babysitter with doubtful immigration status and a compulsion to tell outrageous stories,” “My New American Life” (Harper, $14.99), by Francine Prose, offers a “blistering” satire of 21st-century American culture, according to Helen Simonson.
“Blue Nights ,” by Joan Didion (Vintage, $15) is a “devastating companion volume to ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ a beautiful condolence note to humanity about some of the painful realities of the human condition,” wrote Heller McAlpin.
Melissa Fay Greene lovingly describes her expansive brood — four biological children and five adopted — in her memoir “ No Biking in the House Without a Helmet ” (Sarah Crichton, $15), but the book’s message, peppered with “carefully crafted anecdotes, threaded with hard-won insights,” will resonate with families of all sizes, wrote Suki Casanave.
Krug writes The Post’s monthly New in Paperback column.