Freighthopping Fiction: Borrowing from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams by Allegra Hyde

Setting serves as the flesh and blood of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. The novella nestles into the dawn of the twentieth century, into the feeling of America shaking itself awake and standing on its feet. “He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember,” writes Johnson of his protagonist, Robert Grainier, “and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.” Though roughly hedged by the beginning and end of Grainier’s life, time nonetheless remains an imprecise entity. The opening scene depicts a thirty-something Grainier assisting an attempted murder. In Chapter 2, we fast forward to the 1950s, when Grainier views the World’s Fattest Man, and then beyond to when he has “confused the chronology of the past.” Throughout the novella, history is alternately compressed and dilated. The scope of Grainier’s life—an allegory, in many ways, for America itself—gets shrunk small enough to fit into the palms of readers’ hands, but also sprawls across pages.

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