One man's life: Denis Johnson's new novella

"Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 116 pages, $18)

Johnson is one of our finest writers. His characters are usually not the high and mighty but the down-and-out, sometimes marginalized individuals who struggle to communicate their deeper longings or their encounters with the transcendent. A poet, he infuses his narratives with images that sparkle and even jolt but never overwhelm the reader.

His newest work, "Train Dreams," is a novella that covers a large swath of American history in a succinct narrative of set scenes. The book follows the life of one Robert Grainier, who is born in 1886, as near as he can figure, and dies in 1963, spending all his life in the American Northwest.

Grainier does nothing particularly heroic or outstanding. He experiences some pleasures and some sorrows and works hard much of his life, just getting by each day. Why, then, we wonder at the end of the book, are we so affected by his life's passing? Perhaps because Johnson has the unique ability to draw us into a story and a character until we encounter our own questions about mortality and meaning.

One of the ways Johnson, whose "Tree of Smoke" won the 2007 National Book Award for fiction, captures our attention is his voice, which is both poetic and familiar. Grainier is "baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in the wind." Arn Peeples, formerly a jim-crack sawyer, describes the dangers of cutting trees: "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."

Grainier's first kiss is with Gladys, and it "plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in — as if he'd been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream."

Though not usually labeled a magical realist, Johnson often incorporates what might be called transcendent elements into his fiction. Grainier sees his dead wife, or is it a dream? He encounters his long-lost daughter as a child raised by wolves — or does he? He meets a man who claims he was shot by his dog.

Then Johnson includes a subtle jab at the political powers when, after describing people who feared wolf-people or were wedded to "pagan and superstitious practice," he notes that "when the election season came, the demons of the silver standard and the railroad land snatch took their attention."

Grainier carries throughout his life the memory of a moment when he, his wife and child drank Hood's Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer's night. While riding in an airplane, he recalls this memory, "and all the mysteries of this life were answered."

Johnson sums up Grainier's unremarkable life by noting that he'd never seen the ocean or gone farther east than Libby, Montana. "He'd had one lover — his wife, Gladys — owned one acre of property, two horses and a wagon. He'd never been drunk. He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. ... He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him."

Yet when we leave this man and this book, we feel the loss, which reverberates in our own souls. We recognize in Grainier's dreams of trains our own fears and longings. Johnson in his poignant prose helps us feel such things.