A couple of years ago I sat down one evening to read Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and a few hours later put down the book and just sat for a while in a state of both exhaustion and elation: how did he do that? 128 pages, first-person narration by an academic whose wife and daughter have been killed in an accident. Spare, uncomplicated prose, masking and making appear utterly natural the sophistication of the tale-telling, the interweaving of the episodes in a manner that includes, or implies, far more than most longer novels. Today, same again, with Train Dreams, not much over 100 pages, this time third-person narration of the life of a logger and haulier, a frontiersman almost, born in around 1880.
Other things by Johnson: Tree of Smoke, Vietnam, vast, 700+ pages; Nobody Shoot, noir, pure genre, with wit but no pretensions; Jesus’ Son, the book of stories for which he’s probably best known, mayhem and addiction and random violence. Also other novels, also poetry. There are continuities (‘Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision,’ says James Wood in a review of Train Dreams), but not much in the way of brand identity.
Granta are publishing a UK edition of Train Dreams in hardback in September, and also a paperback reissue of Jesus’ Son. Beg, borrow or buy.