Feature

Novel of the week: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

With Train Dreams, the author Jesus’ Son has invented “a new kind of Western.”

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18)

Over the past decade, Denis Johnson has “lined up the genres of American fiction and then shot them one by one off a fence,” said Gabriel Brownstein in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In Train Dreams, he’s created “a new kind of Western,” one that nevertheless feels like it could only have been produced by “the weird genius” who gave us 1992’s Jesus’ Son. Johnson’s novella, which was published in The Paris Review in 2002 but has been unavailable in book form, is “a spare, stoic miniature of a particular sort of American life,” said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. The book’s protagonist, a turn-of-the-20th-century railroad worker, “lives, works, and suffers tragedy. He watches the world grow up around him, yet manages to keep his distance and continue living as he knows.” Always, there are trains, in both the character’s real and dreaming lives, traveling “the fluid divide between spirit and substance.” In Johnson’s universe, they’re a reminder that “the metaphysical is always with us.”

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