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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Books - Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

Star rating - 9/10

When I read a Denis Johnson book I can't help but feel that it is a Cohen brothers movie in waiting. Nobody Move from 2009 was superb in its telling of the adventures of Jimmy Luntz in the American west. That time the hero, if you can call him such, finds himself amongst petty thieves and gamblers, and weaves in and out of small town bars and motels. Johnson's power of description is stunning, and is used to great effect in the  200 or so pages he takes to tell his tale.

And it is the same with his latest work, Train Dreams, which is even shorter at 116 pages - you might call it a novella but I'm never quite sure where to draw that particular line. It begins in 1917 with its subject, Robert Grainier, finding work where he can in the shadow of the railroad building programme going on at that time. He takes part in some dark deeds, before finding short but sweet happiness with a young wife and new baby girl. However, his domestic haven does not last long, and the power of the story is in its recounting of how he copes with the ensuing tragedy, and the fundamental effect it has on the rest of his life.

He continues to be drawn to the spot in the forest valley where he made his former home, and ekes out a lonely and desolate existence throughout the changing seasons. Johnson is dealing with powerful emotions, and elemental surroundings, which he describes with such colour and precision it is startling. This is one of those epic books that stays with you long after the pages have been turned. It's a one sitting American treasure that deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.

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