Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”

Reading, as I ride a train toward the old rebounded forest I live amid, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. It’s fabulous. He has early forestry work and its people down beautifully. 

Sometimes Peeples set a charge, turned the screw to set it off, and got nothing for his trouble. Then a general tension and silence gripped the woods. Men working half a mile away would somehow get an understanding that a dud charge had to be dealt with, and all work stopped. Peeples would empty his pockets of valuables — a brass watch, a tin comb, a silver toothpick — lay them on a stump, and proceed into the darkness of his tunnel without looking back. When he came out and turned his screws again and the dynamite blew with a whomp, the men cheered and a cloud of dust rushed from the tunnel and powdered rock came raining down over everyone. 

It looked certain Arn Peeples would exit this world in a puff of smoke with a monstrous noise, but he went out quite differently, hit across the back of his head by a dead branch falling off a tall larch — the kind of snag called a “widow maker” with just this kind of misfortune in mind. The blow knocked him silly, but he soon came around and seemed fine, complaining only that his spine felt “knotty among the knuckles” and “I want to walk suchways — crooked.” He had a buber of dizzy spells and grew dreamy and forgetful over the course of the next few days, lay up all day Sunday racked with chills and fever, and on Monday morning was found in his bed deceased, with the covers up under his chin and “such a sight of comfort,” as the captain said, “that you’d just as soon not disturb him — just lower him down into a great long wide grave, bed and all.” 


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