Like an actor with an Oscar-winning role, Denis Johnson has come to be identified with his award-winning Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke, even though that sprawling, flawed attempt at a Great American Novel was clearly an atypical work. Far more characteristic – and far more disciplined and integrated in its crafting – is this bewitching novella, first published in the Paris Review five years earlier in 2002. With Raymond Carver as his mentor, Johnson emerged in the 1990s as part of the misleadingly labelled ‘dirty realist’ or ‘minimalist’ movement. Carver and his disciples depicted individual lives, usually in rural or suburban America, and declined to endow them with larger meanings or connect them to larger narratives – of social trends, say – and big ideas.
Train Dreams seems to reflect this. Its likable but taciturn and usually passive protagonist, Robert Grainier, is barely aware of history passing. Central to the book’s enigmatic allure, however, are unCarverian hints that there is more to Robert, just as Johnson’s passages of fine writing defy the minimalist orthodoxy of