‘Train Dreams,’ by Denis Johnson

I first read ‘Train Dreams’ in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, the same place I first read ‘What Went Wrong’ and a half-dozen other truly great stories I’ve never quite forgotten. The only single-year anthology volume I’ve ever read that is the rival of O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 is O. Henry Prize Stories 2002, edited by Larry Dark. These two books were so adventurous and so varied it seemed like American short fiction had no limit and no ceiling, and although I guess that’s still true, I don’t know that there will ever be another two-year run like that one.

‘Train Dreams’ the long story became Train Dreams the short novel in 2011 without making any changes except in how it was typeset and bound. Famously, it was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012, the year the Pulitzer board was so befuddled by its choices (which also included Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King) that they refused to give any fiction prize at all.

‘Train Dreams’ is befuddling, but not in the way the Pulitzer board was thinking. It’s a very strange story, written in a strange point of view that lands somewhere between history and fable, and which concerns a person whose life seems to wash over him, tide-like, and then, at the end, wash away. In our hyper-self-conscious age, I haven’t met many people like the protagonist, but as a child, in the trailer where my grandfather (who did not finish the eighth grade) lived, I met plenty of people who seemed in some way like the protagonist of ‘Train Dreams,’ and their lives were mysteries that from the outside seemed almost as magical as the affect Denis Johnson creates in this wonderful, long, oddly-shapen story work of art.

Train Dreams, FSG, 2011/Granta, 2012

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