Monday, January 12, 2015

Train Dreams

I recently worked on a book review for The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson. The description of the book sounded so interesting, I decided to look for the novel to read for myself. I couldn't find it while I was at the bookstore, but did find some more of Denis Johnson's work: Train Dreams. Spoiler alert: The following contains detailed descriptions that may spoil certain portions of the book. I'd recommend reading it first, and then proceeding... Anyway, it's a novella, not even 120 pages long, and so was a quick, but extremely pleasurable read. It follows the life of Robert Granier, a simple laborer in the Pacific Northwest, living through the first sixty-something years of the 20th century. The story doesn't progress in chronological order, it skips around to various times in Robert's life, from his thirties, to the end of his life, to his childhood, back to his thirties, and so on. He experiences his share of hardship and tragedy (he loses his wife and baby daughter to a forest fire), but also the events that shaped the country- the invention of the automobile, the development of flight, television, Elvis Presley, etc.

So after reading the book, I decided to try my hand at a mock cover for it. Although the story is about not only Robert Granier, but America in general, and how the rugged, pioneering spirit of this country entered the 20th century, it's constructed like a portrait of this one man. I decided to feature a profile of a man that could be Granier, but combined it with an impression of a cross section of a tree. There were a couple reasons for doing this. First: Granier is a laborer working on various jobs around the forests of the Idaho panhandle, clearing timber for a railroad company for a time. Some time after the death of his family in the fire, he rebuilds his cabin, secluded in the woods, and spends the remainder of his life in that cabin, essentially a hermit. The setting is a very important part of the story, and trees in particular caught my attention. They are anthropomorphized in a few instances: "the trees themselves were killers," or "It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war." Though not explicitly compared to a tree, Granier is described at one point "amid a crowd of people pretty much like himself-his people, the hard people of the northwestern mountains..."  I thought using the analogy was apt. The second reason: I was reminded of cross sections of trees where various events in history are marked on the tree rings when they occurred. There's a giant cross section of, I believe, a redwood in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, that lists various historical events on its rings, going back hundreds of years. This story unfolds almost like someone skipping around on a timeline, and explaining what happened to Robert at that particular point, not to mention a virtual history of America itself, during a period of intense transformation. The rings in the profile of Granier could represent memories from his life, specific events that could be pointed out, as the book does.

I enjoyed Train Dreams so much, I later bought Jesus' Son, a collection of stories, and Tree of Smoke, for which Johnson won a National Book Award. I loved each of these stories immensely, and I'm looking forward to the next work of Johnson's I get the chance to read.

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