In his minor classic Train Dreams, Denis Johnson creates a world that must feel ancient to young people, yet one as familiar to the passing generation as the memory of leathery, diamond-pitted necks in the pew in front of them. The first pages establish the not-so-distant past as a land of casual brutality alien to contemporary sensibilities. In the early 1900s, a railroad gang of white laborers in the American Northwest makes sport of a “Chinaman” suspected of theft. Bent on vigilante justice, they drag him “struggling like a weasel” up the bridge they’re building, intent on throwing him to his death. Robert Grainier, the novella’s central character, responds to the distress of his fellow workers who curse the trouble the immigrant gives them. Later, mystified at his own capacity for violence, Grainier worries that the stranger has cursed him. Spoiler alert: He, or something, does.
After setting up his rheumy wife and daughter in a single-room cabin in the Idaho woods, Grainier heads out for seasonal work in Washington. In often beautiful prose, Johnson conveys a lost time of men living close to the earth, deep among the trees, at one in their Herculean labors.
Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their necks and long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure. At day’s end the gang slept nearly where they fell.
Grainier returns home with a pocket of cash only to discover that forest, home, and budding family have been wiped out by a still smoldering wildfire. He works through his grief by working, slowly rebuilding his cabin for a single occupant, night fears keeping him awake in his canvas lean-to till dawn. He notes: “What grows in the charred soil bears little relation to what existed before.” This line could stand for the novel’s central motif of change, the Northwest’s progress toward modernity channeled through the life of its aptly named (more grainy) protagonist. As the horse-drawn carriage precedes the automobile, so Grainier’s horse-drawn wagon rides ahead of the acquaintance he’s moving’s loud, unreliable Model T that frightens the horses. As he ages, Grainier spends less time in the woods and more in the increasingly populated town, reflecting the frontier’s giving way to settlers.
A similar change from past to present is conveyed in the appearance of a wolf-girl and a wolf-boy. The former may be Grainier’s daughter, having survived and been raised by wolves.
She was as leathery as an old man. Her hands were curled under, the back of her wrists calloused stumps, her feet misshapen, as hard and knotted as wooden burls . . . The child’s eyes sparked greenly in the lamplight like those of any wolf. Her face was that of a wolf, but hairless.
Wolf-boy appears in a circus at novel’s end, clearly a fraud in his “mask of fur, and a suit that looked like fur but was really something else.” The wolf-girl, who appears first, is more animal than human; the wolf-boy more human than animal.
The wolves and coyotes howled without letup all night, sounding in the hundreds, more than Grainier had ever heard, and maybe other creatures too, owls, eagles . . . surely every single animal with a voice along the peaks and ridges looking down on the Moyea River, as if nothing could ease any of God’s beasts. Grainier didn’t dare to sleep, feeling it all to be some sort of vast pronouncement, maybe the alarms of the end of the world.
The passing wolf-pack, voices screaming, dispatches the girl into silence.
Frost has built on the dead grass, and it skirted beneath his feet. If not for this sound he’d have thought himself struck deaf, owing to the magnitude of the surrounding silence. All the night’s noises had stopped.
In contrast to the wolf-girl’s appearance in the forest amid a pack of wolves, the wolf-boy appears indoors in a room of people. The order of noise and silence is reversed. Wolf-boy’s human audience is “silent at first . . . and people let themselves laugh at the wolf-boy. But they hushed, all at once and quite abruptly, when he stood still at center stage.” Their silence is followed by the wolf-boy’s loud howl (to be further described below). In the two scenes, the passing era is characterized by silence punctuated by noise, the time to come by more noise than silence.
The book ends with another long, lovely passage quoted here in full.
He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and it coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moaning of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.
Johnson’s comparison of the wolf-boy’s “last call” to the four winds recalls the biblical Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2, NIV): “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” The Greek word for “wind” comes from pneuma, which can mean wind, spirit, or breath, the last connecting to the human voice. In Johnson’s passage, this elemental force rumbles up from earth instead of descending from heaven. It starts on land with the foghorn’s call to the ship at sea before sublimating into forms of modern technology: it drives the train’s engine and its whistle, the latter invented by a manufacturer of musical instruments, thus the flute; and is cultivated into operatic expression before subjugation in bagpipes, a flicker still of the human in that melancholy moan. The passage is similar to Johnson’s earlier Northwestern woods description in its use of one very long sentence followed by one or two short ones. The effect here, ending with “forever,” is like a heavy wooden door slamming on the past, followed by silence.