Looking at a bookshelf while stopping through Winslow, Arizona I didn’t see a girl in a flat bed Ford but I did see Denis Johnson’s novella, Train Dreams, and appropriately so because the book was no more than 120 decibels and fifty yards from the passing trains.   While waiting for the bill from the Posada Inn to be settled I took a look.  I’d been reading his Tree of Smoke and having a hard time of it.  Billed as a novel about the US war in Vietnam I was finding it to be an overstuffed steamer trunk with lots of incredible pieces but a slow unpacking and sorting to get to the story itself.  Johnson is a highly esteemed writer so I wondered what I was missing and thought a fresh start with something I could finish in a couple of hours might help me find it.

And did I discover!

One perfect phrase after another, all in service of telling us of  the life of one Robert Granier, born sometime around 1886 and living for 80 years or more, arriving by himself at the age of six in the Idaho Panhandle, becoming a laborer, teamster, husband, widower, odd-jobs man. From our comfortable sofas while we read, it’s a hard, hard, hard life.

“His eldest cousin, a girl, said he’d come from northeast Canada and had spoken only French when they’d first seen him, and they’d had to whip the French out of him to get room for the English tongue.”

The story opens with a grabber: 

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway.

Follows several gripping paragraphs about the attempted killing and then escape of the man, after a wild fight, one against four or five.  Johnson creates a kind of faux-frontier argot to tell his story.  It reads like it is genuinely coming from these roughnecks on the frontiers, half-schooled and inventing language to deal with and describe their situation logging, hauling, fighting, drinking.

They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was deader now.  Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.

In the short 116 pages we meet up with Chinese laborers, Kootenai Indians pushed to the fringes of existence, other workers, and most of all Granier himself who meets and marries his wife and then loses her and his child in a fire. He pieces together a life, rebuilds the burned out cabin,  meets a wolf-girl and the ghost of his wife years later.

Our introduction to Galdys,  his wife, following the near killing, is sweet and tender and yet, laconic.  He buys her a sarsparilla which, we understand, is a rare treat.  She and the baby are not well, “down with a case of the salt rheum” and he worries about his behavior, that it might have brought a curse on them.

The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along and any bad thing might come of it.  Though astonished now by the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled at the violence, at how it carried him away like a seed in the wind, young Granier still wished they’d gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.”

We learn marvelous words, disappeared from common usage in modern America, words like ‘choker,’ and ‘limbers,’and ‘sawyers,’ of men living ‘with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards,’  and sleeping in tents left over from the Civil War, images so sharp we are there among them:  Arn Peeples who describes his time in Bisbee, Arizona as being ‘only eleven or twelve miles from the sun,’ and who crawls down into tunnels as a powder monkey:

Sometimes Peeples set a charge, turned the screw to set it off, and got nothing for his trouble. Then a general tension and silence gripped the woods.  Men working half a mile away would somehow get an understanding that a dud charge had to be dealt with, and all work stopped.

Life is hard and the men hard to deal with it. Death comes by accident and illness:

That night old Billy also took a chill and lay pitching from side to side on his cot and steadily raving until well past midnight.  Except for his remarks at his friend’s graveside, Bill probably hadn’t let go of two or three words the whole time the men had known him, but now he kept the nearest ones awake…

Like Tree of Smoke, Train Dreams is packed with side stories.  Unlike the former they are quick and memorable, fitting unforgettably into our growing sense of the lives being led: an old man who tries to get children to sample his tobacco laden expectorate, and is proud of it,  a dying man who confesses his molesting of a young girl, the story of Kootenai Bob run over by a train.

And holding it all together is Bob Granier’s life:

…a general stiffness of his frame worked itself out by halves through most mornings, and he labored like an engine through the afternoons, but he was well past thirty-five years, closer now to forty, and he really wasn’t much good in the woods anymore.

Like I said, a life that is hard, hard, hard.

Happily for us, the reading is not.  It is a wonder, and in being so, reminds us, through Granier’s life, that the comforts we now take so much for granted did not exist, 100 years ago, and do not now in much of the world. I finished, exhilarated by the writing, sobered by the life revealed.

I have pushed on with Tree of Smoke because of my astonishment at Train Dreams It is still a slog, I’m sorry to say.  Miniaturists do not always do well when working at a mural. 

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