Readers' Review: "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Author Denis Johnson won a National Book Award for his Vietnam War novel, "Tree of Smoke." For this month's Readers Review, we've chosen his novella, "Train Dreams." It's a profoundly American story in character and setting. The protagonist is a day laborer with the railroad and logging companies that transformed our nation. Through him, we see the wonders of industrial progress as well as the loss and suffering inflicted along the way.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:37
Joining me in the studio, Ron Charles of the Washington Post, Michele Norris of NPR, and Eric Rutkow, an author and historian. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.

MR. RON CHARLES

11:08:07
Hello.

MS. MICHELE NORRIS

11:08:07
Good morning.

MR. ERIC RUTKOW

11:08:08
Good morning.

REHM

11:08:08
Good to have you all here. Ron Charles, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of the book?

CHARLES

11:08:15
You know, this is the first novel I've read for fun in 15 years.

REHM

11:08:18
For fun?

CHARLES

11:08:20
Yes, I thought it was...

REHM

11:08:20
Everything else...

CHARLES

11:08:22
Everything else is for work.

REHM

11:08:22
...had been for work.

CHARLES

11:08:23
Not that I don't enjoy it.

REHM

11:08:24
Yeah.

CHARLES

11:08:25
But I thought it was wonderful.

REHM

11:08:27
You did?

CHARLES

11:08:27
Startling and moving and really remarkable.

REHM

11:08:30
And so short, Michele.

NORRIS

11:08:35
Digestible, yes.

REHM

11:08:36
Really that he packed so much into this short novel.

NORRIS

11:08:42
It had the feeling to me like a great exhale. I loved it, too. And I found myself reading it and I had to stand up when I read it because I thought like I had to almost at attention. It felt like this big, long exhale, this gale-force wind, where he just sort of unloaded the story that washed over you. I loved it.

REHM

11:09:05
And, Eric Rutkow, how about you?

RUTKOW

11:09:09
For me, it was just remarkable how many of the main themes in American history could show up in such a small number of pages.

REHM

11:09:15
Such as?

RUTKOW

11:09:16
Well, we have everything from immigration and how that's shaping the country in this time period, to obviously, from my perspective, the way that we're relating to nature and trees. And both how we're destroying the forests, but also how we're building out of them and the dangers and violence of nature, and trying to deal with those threats that are constantly out there. This is a very violent book. A lot of people reach ends in sort of morbid and often horrific ways.

REHM

11:09:41
Exactly. Well, and even the character himself, Robert, it's either Grenier or Granier and I'm not sure which. The novel or the novella opens with a horrifying scene, Michele, that paints kind of an unflattering picture of Robert Granier.

NORRIS

11:10:07
And we don't want to give too much away because we really want to invite people to read this book. But it begins with the scene of a Chinaman, that's how he's described, being dragged up a mountain. And Granier has to decide at the moment whether he watches, whether he's a bystander or whether he's a participant. And in that moment, you learn quite a bit about him because he decides to participate.

NORRIS

11:10:32
And actually when others find it's difficult to hold on to this fellow's arms, which are -- he's kicking and fighting, Robert decides he's the one who actually is most committed to dragging this man up to the top of a mountain. And it's described that, you know, the harder he fights that, you know, whether they thought about making him dead, they were more committed to this. But as it gets difficult and difficult, some of them pull away.

NORRIS

11:10:55
And he's more committed to that. And in that minute you learn about the logging. You learn about his character. You learn about, you know, the immigration patterns that are shaping the country and the sort of ugly views that that people have. And you learn about strength, both the external strength that it takes to try to command nature, but something internal also about survival and how people view each other.

REHM

11:11:15
And, Ron Charles, he regrets this for the rest of his life.

CHARLES

11:11:21
He's a fairly superstitious person, as I suppose many people were at that time. And the Chinaman, he gets the sense, is cursing them because he can't understand what the man is saying. But he definitely knows it's a curse of some kind, and he feels that curse for the rest of his life. As horrible things happen, he recalls it and remembers maybe -- he thinks maybe this is the result of that curse.

CHARLES

11:11:38
And Eric can speak more to this, I'm sure. But tens of thousands of people in China were lured over here with the promise of work and then essentially discarded and treated horrifically.

RUTKOW

11:11:47
Well, the Chinese exclusion, which are taking place in the 1880s pretty much closed down the entrance and we start having new immigration groups come in. But when we think of things like the Transcontinental Railroads, obviously, from the Transcontinental side moving east was built almost entirely from Chinese labor. And the book does a good job, I think, of talking about some of the horrific conditions involved where we hear about Chinese immigrants coming down in baskets to the sides of gorges with dynamite to blow out holes. Really remarkable scenes.

REHM

11:12:16
And, you know, you bring up such a good point. Remember, at first, I had thought that the railroad was built from East to West, but in fact the two parts came together and didn't even meet. But here is this man and I wonder why this book started this way with the Chinese character. What do you think, Eric?

RUTKOW

11:12:47
That's an excellent question, that's what I think. One thing for me that struck me, and I don't want to give too much away is that...

REHM

11:12:54
You know, let me just say, this book has been promoted for a month. We have told listeners we were going to read it and talk about it. I do want to urge them to read it, but we're going to talk about this book, okay?

NORRIS

11:13:14
Okay.

REHM

11:13:15
Go ahead, Eric.

CHARLES

11:13:15
Okay, spoiler alert.

RUTKOW

11:13:16
Well, that being said, spoiler alert. So in the opening scene, when they grabbed the Chinaman and dragged him, where they're dragging him to is a trestle bridge that's spanning a gorge. And the incredible thing for me -- and I didn't pick this up until a later reading for me when I returned to the book -- is that it was that wooden bridge that allows the fire that will consume the valley where he lives to reach his valley.

RUTKOW

11:13:41
So not only is the curse arguably based in superstition and concerns and someone speaking a language and seemingly being very concerned because they're about to be or almost are murdered, but that bridge itself is what will directly create the fire that consumes his house, his family, his entire life.

NORRIS

11:13:58
The Robinson Gorge Bridge. Yes, that...

RUTKOW

11:14:01
This is the moiré.

NORRIS

11:14:02
Yeah.

RUTKOW

11:14:02
So and it's this idea of man and nature coming together that wildfires happen, lightning strikes, drought conditions. But what actually allows it to spread so quickly is they built a wooden bridge that formed a span that let it jump the gorge.

CHARLES

11:14:18
Also, it plays right to his strength that we see in "Jesus Son" and in "Tree of Smoke." He's great with acts of startling violence. And so the book starts with a bang.

REHM

11:14:27
You mean that this author...

CHARLES

11:14:31
Yes.

REHM

11:14:32
...over and over again...

CHARLES

11:14:34
Right.

REHM

11:14:35
...starts with a bang.

CHARLES

11:14:36
Yes.

REHM

11:14:37
Denis Johnson is the author we're talking about. His book is titled "Train Dreams." I hope, whether you have read the book or not, there's so much to talk about here. Do join us. This author is the winner of the National Book Award. He's the author of six novels, three collections of poetry and one book of reportage. The "Tree of Smoke" was the 2007 winner of the National Book Award.

REHM

11:15:17
You know, I'm curious about the fact that this book was short-listed for a Pulitzer. No novel won the Pulitzer this year, which created lots of discussion. Ron Charles?

CHARLES

11:15:35
Yeah, I was really angry about that. There were plenty of good novels to nominate and should have won last year. The fact that the list only had three books, one was a novel, one was a novella published 10 years ago and one was an unfinished manuscript. I thought that was ridiculous.

REHM

11:15:52
Why do you suppose the Pulitzer committee got to that point this year?

CHARLES

11:15:58
I don't know why the judges didn't pick other novels. There were plenty of them. There was "Doc." It's easy to second guess judges. They have a lot of books coming in, but I thought it was a really peculiar list of finalists.

REHM

11:16:11
You know, Michele, this fellow, Robert Granier, is really a survivor. As much as is poured on him in the way of tragedy and, I don't know, loss, he comes through. How come?

NORRIS

11:16:33
You know, there's a moment in the book where he has gone to face his demons and search for his wife and daughter and living near the homestead that was destroyed by this fire. And he goes through this passage of being spiritually unhinged, where he's hearing voices and seeing things and longing for his wife and daughter. And he sort of emerges from that, years later, with this atrocity companion, the red dog.

NORRIS

11:17:04
And then he becomes physically unhinged, literally. I mean, a tree hits him in the jaw and his jaw never closes quite the right way. And then the joints all down his body stop working. And yet he continues to sort of, you know, move forward. And that was, you know, one of those moments where it helped me sort of, you know, create a vision of this person who was sort of ambling through life.

NORRIS

11:17:30
And you're sort of moving forward and backward. You're in the moment with him, but he's constantly, you know, reaching back and trying to understand the past. And part of what moves him forward, I think, is that yearning for a past that he can't remember. He arrived in this big open space as an orphan with only a little bit of a memory with a note pinned to him that was, you know, the back side of a receipt.

REHM

11:17:53
He has no idea who his parents are.

NORRIS

11:17:57
And that's sort of what he's sort of, I think, searching for throughout.

CHARLES

11:18:01
That's a classic American theme, right? People come here, they start over. They can become whoever they want to be. They reinvent themselves or they don't have a past or they make a usable past out of nothing. The book stems right out of other books that Hemingway has written and Thoreau and Cormac McCarthy, Andy (word?). It's really in the grand tradition of American fiction here.

REHM

11:18:18
Ron Charles, he's fiction editor for the Washington Post. Michele Norris, she's author of "The Grace of Silence," and Eric Rutkow is an attorney and historian. Author of "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." Short break here. We'll be right back.

REHM

11:20:04
And for this month's Readers' Review we're talking about Denis Johnson's book "Train Dreams." It's a novella and a very lovely book, 116 pages all about the development of the country and what happens to people and the landscape along the way. Michele Norris is, of course, with NPR. Ron Charles, The Washington Post. Eric Rutkow is the author of a new book, "American Canopy," all about the trees and forests of America. Michele, read a little bit for us from this book.

NORRIS

11:20:54
At your invitation, I'm going to read a section where Grainier is bringing home Hood's Sarsaparilla to his wife and daughter. It's something that she loves and he thinks it might help her because she's feeling ill. "He gave the Hood's to Gladys. She sat up in bed by the stove, nursing the baby at her breast, down with a case of the salt rheum. She could easily have braved it and done her washing and cut up potatoes and trout for supper, but it was their custom to let her lie up with a bottle or two of the sweet tasting Hood's tonic when her head ached and her nose stopped, and get a holiday from such chores.

NORRIS

11:21:31
Grainier's baby daughter, too, looked rheumy. Her eyes were a bit crusted and the discharge bubbled pendulously at her nostrils while she suckled and snorted at her mother's breast. Kate was four months old, still entirely bald. She did not seem to recognize him. Her little illness wouldn't hurt her as long as she didn't develop a cough out of it.

NORRIS

11:21:53
Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. 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 at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in the wind, young Grainier still wished they'd gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he'd cursed them. He sat on the edge of the bed. Thank you, Bob, his wife said. Do you like your sarsaparilla? I do. Yes, Bob. Do you suppose little Kate can taste it out of your teat? Of course she can."

REHM

11:22:31
It's just such a wonderful scene. Such a personal encounter that he has with his wife as she suckles the baby.

RUTKOW

11:22:46
And I think that this is one of the scenes that humanizes him very early on. So we're first introduced to him in one of the worst moments of violence in his life, one of the worst moral decisions he makes.

REHM

11:22:53
Exactly.

RUTKOW

11:22:56
And then we turn immediately to seeing that he's a family man, that he seems to have great respect for his family, that he wants to comfort his wife. And so we have these two sides of this man, a very hard side, a very pragmatic side and a very loving and caring side. And that tension is going to be developed over the course of the book. So in these opening scenes we really get a sense of who he is.

REHM

11:23:18
And, Eric, you write a lot about this entire era in your own book "American Canopy" talking about the trees and the forests. How big a role did the trees and the forests play in the development of this country?

RUTKOW

11:23:39
Well, I would tell you that perhaps the biggest role of all, certainly if we think of the resources that we used and if we think of the landscape and how it shaped us and how we in turn have shaped that over time, I think that it's very easy to point to trees. And this novella does a great job at supporting that argument. We can see that most of his employment is directly involved in the forest. He's either chopping down trees -- he goes to Washington to do that. He has some smaller jobs around Idaho doing that as well.

RUTKOW

11:24:08
And I should say that at this time there is a massive lumber industry in northern Idaho as well. Just a huge volume of timber is coming out in the first 25 years of the 20th century. And then at the same time we can see that it's a fire that will destroy a forest and then that will be the forest was his home. And without that he has to rebuild again? And what is the home he builds? He chops down some spruce trees and begins to stack them. And over the course later builds himself a log cabin.

REHM

11:24:35
And there's so much danger involved in this cutting of trees and people are killed in the process, Ron Charles.

CHARLES

11:24:46
Yeah, what was the line you mentioned, Michele?

NORRIS

11:24:48
Oh, a tree is your friend as long as you leave it alone.

CHARLES

11:24:51
Yeah, as soon as the blade touches it, you're at war with it. Yeah, there's some horrendous deaths here.

REHM

11:24:58
An older man who you mentioned earlier is responsible for setting the charges. He's one who gets killed. Another...

CHARLES

11:25:13
Is he the one that's drying dynamite in his stove? I love that.

NORRIS

11:25:18
He's the one who goes in to -- when the charge doesn't work...

REHM

11:25:19
Exactly.

NORRIS

11:25:19
...he walks in and makes sure that the wires are set correctly and then comes out and charges it again. I think he was killed by the falling branch.

CHARLES

11:25:28
Oh, right.

RUTKOW

11:25:29
The widow maker.

NORRIS

11:25:30
The widow maker.

CHARLES

11:25:30
It was another man who was drying dynamite in his stove, which you shouldn't do.

REHM

11:25:34
We've got a caller in Townsend, Md. who'd like to be part of the program. Let's go to Ed. Good morning to you, sir. You're on the air.

ED

11:25:44
Good morning. This is such good luck 'cause I didn't know you were doing the book review of "Train Dreams" today, but I just finished it myself over the weekend.

REHM

11:25:53
Good.

ED

11:25:54
And so I wanted to comment. I agree, you know, pretty much with what everyone has said. It's a remarkable book for being such a short book, covers so much. But I also really enjoyed the lyrical passages, almost like poetry, some of the descriptions of the nature that I guess we're seeing through Grainier's eyes. Like there was a scene in a book where I think cattle's driven across the lake -- a frozen lake in the snow. The cattle rolls up the snow so it like covers everything. And it just -- that whole description of that passage -- I don't have it in front of me now.

ED

11:26:29
But -- and there was quite a few passages like that that to me was almost like poetry. And that was another thing I really enjoyed about the book.

REHM

11:26:37
Ed, I'm so glad you read it and so glad you enjoyed it. A lot of people have said this reads kind of like poetry, Michele.

NORRIS

11:26:47
It does and there are moments -- I mean, the place that -- one of the places -- I should say I one of the places where I really got lost is when he goes back and he's searching for his wife and daughter and realizes that everything in the valley has been consumed by fire. And he's describing -- you know, there are just little asides that he makes. That he finds the cook stove and it's on its side and its legs are bent in like a dead beetle. And, you know, you can just picture this. It's so evocative.

NORRIS

11:27:12
But the moment where Gladys, a woman who we learn he loves so much in that passage...

REHM

11:27:18
He adores her.

NORRIS

11:27:20
...returns to him and gives him a strange gift. The description of what happened to their home when the fire took the building. It is a breathless read and it's someone who often talks about wild fires in the summer months. You know, you talk about the fire usually from above from the people who are fighting fires. You never really get the description of what it's like to be in the middle of one of them. And he gives you that.

REHM

11:27:47
I hope you will find that passage...

NORRIS

11:27:50
I'm looking for it now.

REHM

11:27:50
...and read it for us Michele because -- go ahead, Ron.

CHARLES

11:27:54
It's one of the things that creates tension in the novel, such that it moves from very peaceful settings to very violence settings. It also moves from very simple plain language to very evocative lyrical language in a startling way. This is one little line. The butterfly's fluttering magically like leaves without trees. That's not a plain line. That's a remarkably poetic line.

REHM

11:28:12
Yeah, absolutely. Have you found it, Michele?

NORRIS

11:28:14
Thanks to Eric, I did.

REHM

11:28:16
Please.

NORRIS

11:28:17
Gladys is -- she's speaking to her husband. She's returned.

REHM

11:28:22
Through a dream.

NORRIS

11:28:23
Through -- well, yes, through a dream, but it feels altogether real because the dog has bristled. The dog is sensing that something really is in the room and she describes what's happened. And that her daughter hadn't come across among the spirits, but lingered here in the world of life, a child alone in the burning forest. "But the forest isn't burning, he told her. But Gladys couldn't hear. Before his sight, she was living again in her last moments. The forest burned and she had only a minute to gather a few things and her baby and run from the cabin as the fire smoked down the hill.

NORRIS

11:28:56
Of what she'd snatched up less and less seemed worthy. And she tossed away clothes and valuables as the heat drove her toward the river. At the lip of the bluff, she held only her Bible and her red box of chocolates, each pinned against her with an elbow and the baby clutched against her chest with both hands. She stooped and dropped the candy and the heavy book at her feet while she tied the child inside her apron. And then she was able to pick them up again.

NORRIS

11:29:22
Needing a hand to steady her along the rocky bluff as they descended, she tossed away the Bible rather than the chocolates. This uncovering of her indifference to God, the Father of all, this was her undoing. Twenty-five feet above the water, she kicked loose a stone and not a heartbeat later, she'd broken her back on the rocks below. Her legs lost all feeling and she wouldn't move. She was only able to pluck at the knot across her bodice until the child was free to crawl away and fend for itself, however briefly, along the shore." And this goes on and on.

NORRIS

11:29:57
You see another dilemma, a moral dilemma and she goes on to describe what happens in the house. "The logs in the wall stress and popped like large bore cartridges going off. On the table by the stove, a magazine curled, darkened, flames spiraled upward and flew away page by page, burning and circling. The cabin's once glass window shattered. The curtains began to blacken at the hems. The wax melted off the jars of tomatoes, beans and Canada cherries on a shelf above the steaming kitchen tub.

NORRIS

11:30:31
Suddenly, all the lamps in the cabin were lit. On the table a metal-lidded jar of salt exploded and then the whole structure ignited like a match head."

REHM

11:30:41
Michele Norris reading from Denis Johnson's novella "Train Dreams." Those are such powerful passages. And to learn how she died made me wonder whether he imagined it or whether she truly, in some kind of dream, came to him. What was your thinking, Ron?

CHARLES

11:31:14
I don't know 'cause Johnson has written before about drug-induced visions. I mean, there are visions in here that aren't drug induced, but they're still -- they seem visionary to me.

REHM

11:31:22
Visions.

NORRIS

11:31:23
And he was living on mushrooms at the time.

REHM

11:31:26
He was indeed. What do you think, Eric?

RUTKOW

11:31:29
I think they were Morel mushrooms, but I take the point. There's another passage where he mentions -- and this is on page 47 -- this is after there's been the fire, but before he's rebuilt his home. He stayed on for weeks in this camp waiting, wanting many more such visions as that of the bonnet and the chocolates, as many as wanted to come to him. And he figured that as long as he saw impossible things in this place and liked them, he might as well be in the habit of talking to himself, too.

RUTKOW

11:31:59
And so, to me, at this early stage in the novella, he seems to acknowledge that there are impossible things he's seeing. As the book goes on, his own sense of what may be impossible and what may be real seems to begin to blur so that by the final sort of dream-like episodes that we're dealing with, it's much harder to have a real feel for what Grainier thinks or what the narrator himself seems to think of the situation. It becomes very ambiguous, but leaves a lot of space and I think plenty of clues for a reader to decide how to interpret that.

NORRIS

11:32:33
And perhaps a suggestion that your history can set you free because that is -- when Gladys comes back to him, that is the moment that he starts to at least spiritually heal and move forward.

CHARLES

11:32:44
I think visions have gone out of style 'cause we're so scientific and so sophisticated. But for a long, long time people trusted visions, they trusted dreams, they thought they had real value. And I think that's imbedded in his way of life.

REHM

11:32:53
That's a good point. Ron Charles, fiction editor for the Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our lines are open. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. How does Grainer, Grainier, Grainier, however you choose to pronounce it, you know, he's a loner, but how does he interact with his community, Eric?

RUTKOW

11:33:41
He's genuinely an honest fellow outside of a few moral instances we've seen. And it's stressed early on that he doesn't drink and he doesn't chase women. And other than a brief stretch in his late teens where he was sort of a lay-about, he pursues honest work and tries to treat people fairly. So for the most part, he attempts to interact honestly.

RUTKOW

11:34:01
And what we see is him struggling at times to navigate a world where people have a lot of confused intentions, where people know that life is hard and people know that people do die suddenly. And that the morality of how to interact with each other is often shaped around this understanding that a man that makes it to 40 years old in this territory has outlived many of his peers.

REHM

11:34:21
He doesn't have much money as time goes on. How does he live? How does he support himself, Michele?

NORRIS

11:34:29
He -- off the kindness of other people, you know, essentially. And you see this man slowly going mad, you know, in trying to hold on to something. And it's really how he gets by is this sort of cast of characters that come into his life at the very end of his life.

REHM

11:34:50
And you think he truly goes mad.

NORRIS

11:34:55
You know, that's the way I read it that, you know, and he talks about it -- I was just looking for this where he talks about acknowledging that something terrible had happened deep down inside of him. And it seems like that sort of break with reality, this war, you know, inside of him. And one seems to get on top of the other.

REHM

11:35:16
All going back to both the Chinaman and the loss of his wife and daughter?

RUTKOW

11:35:24
I would agree with you that it does seem he goes mad but I would qualify that to within his one acre of land where the cabin existed. It seems when he goes out into the world and deals with other people and he sort of has a small hauling business that he handles for a few years, he never seems to do anything that strikes me as particularly strange or odd. In fact, at one point he questions, am I a hobbit, right -- or hermit, excuse me -- am I a hermit.

RUTKOW

11:35:51
And so there certainly does seem to be a sort of madness that arises in this one special place that's been destroyed and rebuilt where he had everything and everything was taken from him. But when he goes out into the broader world, it often -- he strikes me as sort of a laborer, as a man without a specialized skill set who is available for whatever tasks are at hand. And that carries him for a long time.

REHM

11:36:13
But, you know, it's fascinating even in that exchange you read about the sarsaparilla, Michele, his wife seems to have a greater understanding of the world than he does. He seems, shall I call it, slow. He seems non-comprehending of the world in comparison. What do you think, Ron Charles?

CHARLES

11:36:43
I don't know as I agree because if the book represents his perspective and his experience of the world, he's so sensitive to other people's experiences.

REHM

11:36:49
Sensitive, yes, yes.

CHARLES

11:36:51
And one of the most -- we haven't talked about it yet, but some of the most startling parts of the book are these other stories we get. Like the story of William Coswell Haley, the pedophile who dies there by the tree, or the man who is shot by his own dog. I mean, we only have those stories because Robert listened to them in a particular way and conveys them to us in this narrative, which suggests that he is extremely sensitive to the world around him.

NORRIS

11:37:13
Or that people are sensitive to him because in this case, the man he meets in the woods, it's almost like he was chosen. Like this is -- before I leave this earth, I'm going to give my story to you.

CHARLES

11:37:23
Right. And he heard it.

REHM

11:37:25
Michele Norris of NPR and author of "The Grace of Silence." Short break and when we come, we'll go to the phones.

REHM

11:40:04
And let's go right to the phones as we talk about a book titled "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson. To Wilkesboro, N.C., good morning, Scott, you're on the air.

SCOTT

11:40:21
Good morning. I appreciate you taking my call.

REHM

11:40:23
Surely.

SCOTT

11:40:25
I was listening to the description of the beginning of the book with Sire leaping across the bridge and then you're talking about the expansion by a train coming across westward expansion. Is there a subtle critique of westward expansion that's going on here? I'd be curious about the comment.

REHM

11:40:45
What do you think, Eric?

RUTKOW

11:40:47
I think that there are critiques of aspects of how it was done, but I think that Denis Johnson seems more interested in playing with themes and tensions in the American experience than throwing this out there as a polemic. It certainly doesn't feel that way to me, so I would say that it's more a question of the drive to western expansion brings forth all of these tensions in the American experience.

REHM

11:41:09
How it happened, yeah.

RUTKOW

11:41:11
How do we interact with nature, how do we interact with others, whether that be Native Americans, whether that be immigrants that come in, how does modernity reflect on this, what is the role of the railroad, is it a force of progress or a force of destruction. And so it doesn't strike me as much as a critique, as much as trying to recreate that scene to sort of allow you to understand what were those tensions and what did it look like.

REHM

11:41:33
Michele.

NORRIS

11:41:35
You know, we were talking about a question off mic about whether this was really a rumination on him or whether it's really about the westward expansion in America and the growth of railroads. And this reader, me, I was sort of more focused on him. And this note, you know, at the end because it says so much about the span of his life and I guess how that plays out against the backdrop of the growth of the railroads, you know, he through his life had one lover, his wife. He'd owned one acre property, two horses and a wagon. He'd never been drunk. He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.

NORRIS

11:42:14
He'd ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles and once on an aircraft, which is a hilarious scene in the -- very entertaining moment in the book. During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might've been and he left no heirs behind him. It says so much about the span of his life as, you know, compared or as set against that backdrop.

NORRIS

11:42:41
But the one thing I would suggest for people who have read this book or who will read it, perhaps a companion read, is a larger novel by -- at least larger in size, but similar in scope and in focus, Ron Rash's novel "Serena," which is also about the taming of the forest and the west and in the middle west. And many of the characters that you meet, the loggers and the sawyers, are quite similar, and the sudden death and the sort of battles with nature we were talking about.

CHARLES

11:43:13
Yeah, that's one of my favorite novels over the last few years.

REHM

11:43:16
Is it really?

CHARLES

11:43:17
It's remarkable.

REHM

11:43:17
Oh.

CHARLES

11:43:18
It's Gothic, so it had a totally different tone than this book.

REHM

11:43:20
All right. We'll put that on our list. However, back to "Train Dreams." This gets weird toward the last third of the book. Again, the question is whether it's reality, whether it's something going on in his head because he is so alone. There's the dog that shoots the man. There is the appearance of a she dog, a she wolf who may represent his daughter, his long lost baby daughter who the narrator somehow implies that she escaped when her mother fell and broke her back and drowned and was raised by wolves. What did you make of that, Eric? You're laughing.

RUTKOW

11:44:24
No. For me, I went back to reread that and I found that those scenes made a lot more sense to me the second time around, that...

REHM

11:44:35
Why?

RUTKOW

11:44:37
So part of the reason why is that it's set up very well, so part of it is just as a matter of craft and writing, he does an excellent job of dropping subtle hints along the way of what's to come. One of them that I think is really interesting is in the same scene we were reading earlier about the sarsaparilla, which is at the very, very beginning of the book.

RUTKOW

11:44:57
If you go to sort of the next scene forward, it's about a page forward, there's a -- on page 9 he says, "In the dark, he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute. It was his only thought to trick -- it was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck. All of his life, Robert Grainer was able to recall this very moment on this very night." So we're nine pages into the book and we already have this subtle hint that there may be something to come. And we've had so much preparation for his sort of, I don't know if we want to call it madness or his visions within where he is that we've been very well set up to the experience of this daughter.

RUTKOW

11:45:38
But what's really interesting to me is that it's not just the scene of this sort of wolf child as daughter visiting him toward the end. But the very, very last scene in the book, the way the book actually closes, is a false wolf child in a carnival. He goes to a fair. And we've jumped forward about 30 years, so now we're in -- I think this is the 1950s at this point, maybe '60s.

CHARLES

11:46:03
'60s.

RUTKOW

11:46:04
And what I found very interesting was that when the wolf child -- when he thinks it's his daughter visiting him, it's this mixture of myth as reality, nature and man combining. And we jump forward 30 years and myth and reality are sort of gone now. The whole audience knows that this is a show, that this isn't real, and they're actually laughing at this wolf boy. And then what is weirdest of all is the final paragraph where the wolf boy leans back his head and releases...

REHM

11:46:31
And howls.

RUTKOW

11:46:33
...essentially the primal scream of nature which to me reflected this ongoing tension of myth, reality, nature and man all is captured in that last moment.

REHM

11:46:41
But doesn't Robert Grainer also do this howling himself?

NORRIS

11:46:48
As sport.

REHM

11:46:49
As sport.

CHARLES

11:46:50
And he's training his puppy how to be wolf, right?

REHM

11:46:53
So it...

CHARLES

11:46:54
He howls to the wolves, they howl back.

REHM

11:46:56
And they howl back.

CHARLES

11:46:56
It's a remarkable scene.

REHM

11:46:58
Here's an email from Colleen in Mason, Ohio, who says, "This was an amazing book, such an epic story in such a small package. Why, with the scope of the story, do you think Denis Johnson chose to write it in novella form?"

CHARLES

11:47:23
He can write long. I mean, the "Tree of Smoke."

REHM

11:47:25
He can write long, there's no question.

NORRIS

11:47:26
600 pages.

CHARLES

11:47:26
"Tree of Smoke" is a long, huge, rambling novel.

REHM

11:47:29
Is it really?

CHARLES

11:47:30
Yeah, this is not. I think it makes different demands. He wants to try different challenges.

REHM

11:47:34
On himself.

CHARLES

11:47:35
Right.

REHM

11:47:35
Yeah.

CHARLES

11:47:36
Yeah.

REHM

11:47:37
And so you have this compression of ideas, of facts, of happenings and then all of this sort of wolf child built in.

NORRIS

11:47:53
And yet he introduces us to so many people along the way and so many scenes along the way. That's one of the amazing things about this book is you would assume that the through line would be very linear.

CHARLES

11:48:03
Right.

NORRIS

11:48:04
And yet there are characters...

REHM

11:48:05
And it's not.

NORRIS

11:48:06
...in one or two sentences you know all you need to know about someone, you know, there's some little detail.

CHARLES

11:48:10
That is really hard to do. And he does it just expertly I think.

REHM

11:48:14
Here's another email from John. Let's see. He says, "Such an astounding piece of fiction, stark and revealing. It calls to mind a simplified Cormac McCarthy style as if that were possible. It also reminds me in its simplicity of a movie called "The Straight Story," which chronicled a story of a dying man who wanted to make amends with his brother and cross the plains by way of tractor, the similarity in the purity of soul and self revelation." Of course, there is not quite purity of soul here, if you think back to the Chinaman, Eric.

RUTKOW

11:49:07
He's made a few moral judgments in his life that he thinks are very questionable. And the Chinaman is the most notable one and I think there's a good reason why that opens the book. But what's interesting to me is he still seems to represent the closest thing to a moral core in the universe that he inhabits, in the sense that he's a fairly honest man and he's not really trying to go out of his way to harm anyone. And we see episode after episode where he encounters people that have been wronged or suffered or sometimes themselves are looking to be the bad actor and looking to exploit people. And he functions for us as the reader I think as something of a moral voice in interpreting in what's going on around him.

REHM

11:49:46
Mm-hmm. What about the local Native American culture and what kind of an effect that has on Grainer, Michele?

NORRIS

11:50:00
That -- there's this, you know, some of it is hard to read. And I guess that is in keeping with the time period and with the way Native Americans were reviewed then. But he almost stands between the people who are casting judgment and the people who are being judged. I mean, he's sort of the -- he's not necessarily wagging a finger, but he's sort of the filter that, you know, that you see all this through, whether it's the woman who sort of, you know, paints herself with sloppy, red lipstick or, you know, the squaw that he encounters later in life, and just the saying or the reading of that word is something that, you know, right now makes us bristle and...

REHM

11:50:47
Sort of shocking to see it.

NORRIS

11:50:48
Yes, exactly. But he's the sort of filter that we see all this through and it is less shocking because you sense that he feels something that is not quite right about this.

RUTKOW

11:51:04
My sense of this is that when we look through Grainer's eyes, he actually sees Native Americans somewhat as sort of complete equals. So there's one character, Cooneye (sp?) Bob and Cooneye Bob is a laborer just the same way the main character is.

REHM

11:51:18
He sure is.

RUTKOW

11:51:19
And when he describe Cooneye Bob the first time, he essentially says he's a laborer just like me, seems like a nice guy, we talk to each other every so often. Then when that same person is seen through the eyes of the guy whose dog shoots him, right, now Cooneye Bob is a beggar effectively who sort of walks over, chats, but ultimately is asking for money. And so I think that tension is captured very nicely there. But I do agree with you, some of the language, it's a little hard to know is it sort of through the protagonist's eyes, through the narrator's eyes, what are we supposed to do with this language. And that can be a little bit tricky and it can be jarring at times.

CHARLES

11:51:54
Coming here, I wonder what it would be like to read this as someone from China or as a Native American Indian. 'Cause we all grew up on these stories of loners, that is, white American males who are out there on the forest on their own, and we know these are the moral heroes and they're the moral heroes of our national imagination. Then when you get readers from different ethnic backgrounds, you get a very different impression of our national literature. And I wonder how that would change your impression of this book. I don't know. I think it would.

NORRIS

11:52:19
That's an interesting conversation. I would be very, you know, interested to hear that.

REHM

11:52:23
Michele Norris, she's the author of "The Grace of Silence." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Valerie in Alexandria, Va. Good morning to you.

VALERIE

11:52:37
Hi. How interesting. What a wonderful book, amazing, really amazing. I'm a French Canadian and I come from a town called Shequatami (sp?) where got burned down about the same time of where the story is taking place. And so lots of my ancestors moved to the west as loggers or all sorts of different trades. They covered the gamut over there. And one interesting point that I'm seeing is the name Grainer. Grainer in French means it's a holding spot for grains, wheat or all sorts of things.

VALERIE

11:53:24
And to me his name means that he's the holder of something, a past or a sense of knowledge, right? So as a French Canadian, this is what I'm reading, too. Because he said as a French Canadian to another French Canadian family, they may have been there earlier, an earlier generation. But this is my reading of it.

REHM

11:53:56
That's very interesting. Eric.

RUTKOW

11:53:58
That's interesting and I wasn't aware of that. I would say that if that's the case, it may be that he's sort of an empty vessel is going to be filled up, and what is it that's filling him up is sort of this nature that encounters him and the experiences. But we don't know that he's French Canadian. It's only sort of implied. It's also suggested by his cousin that he could be Mormon. And this is the challenging thing. I think to American ears we see it and you go to Mount Rainer immediately because that seems to be more of the association. But I don't know that that's necessarily meant to express something specific.

RUTKOW

11:54:30
I will say I sort of did not try to over think what the name was, acknowledging that it may have a lot of resonance. I don't know if you guys had sort of thoughts on that.

NORRIS

11:54:40
Well, but the French Canadian thing is very interesting because he, again, doesn't have this memory of his background, but it is suggested by one of his cousins that he came speaking French and they had to beat the French out of him so he was accepting of what they called, I think, the native tongue or the mother tongue, which, of course, would be American English.

CHARLES

11:54:57
That was done to the Indians, too, in some parts of the country, right? Their native languages were beaten out of them.

REHM

11:55:03
Can somebody explain to me very quickly how the dog shot the man?

CHARLES

11:55:13
It is sort of ambiguous, isn't it?

REHM

11:55:15
Yeah, it's more than ambiguous. Can you, Eric?

RUTKOW

11:55:20
I don't know that I can. The person who was shot was so reticent to say that our main character threatened to throw him off the side of the road which would've killed him actually, if he didn't explain what happened. And even then we don't get a complete story, so...

CHARLES

11:55:33
It's a great bit of dialogue.

RUTKOW

11:55:35
It is a great bit of dialogue.

CHARLES

11:55:35
It's surprisingly comic, I think.

REHM

11:55:37
And just one of many, many mysteries in this tiny, little book. And it's interesting, on the cover, you have the train moving along with the horse moving even faster, what that indicates, who knows.

NORRIS

11:56:01
Who's gonna win. You know, you look at this and you wonder it's, you know, man versus nature.

REHM

11:56:09
Was it worth it? Thank you all so much for joining me. Pardon me. Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Michele Norris, author of "The Grace of Silence." She is a voice of NPR. Eric Rutkow, attorney and historian, author of "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." For next month's Readers' Review on Wednesday, June 27th, we'll discuss "Tinkers" by Paul Harding. Tells a story of a New England patriarch at the end of his life, reflecting back on his early years and his relationship with his father. I hope you'll join us for that June 27th. Thank you all so much.

NORRIS

11:57:09
Thank you.

CHARLES

11:57:09
Oh, thank you very much.

RUTKOW

11:57:09
Thank you.

REHM

11:57:11
And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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