Essay 1 - Train Dreams - Scott Rowsick Literature and the...

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Scott Rowsick Literature and the Contemporary Essay 1 – “Train Dreams” Train Dreams and the End of the American West Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a concise literary work that—through the lens of a modest and enigmatic protagonist, the use of a peculiar plotline, and the sparse but effective placement of modern technological innovation—respectively complicates and dismantles aspects of the Western genre , and, ultimately, symbolizes the ending of the idea of the American West as it has come to be known in society. Johnson’s reliance on an emotional connection with the reader, the need to get into the reader’s head , rather than get through their skin, shapes the novella into a bizarre and disconnected work that leaves the reader neither rooting for or against Robert Grainier. Instead, it lulls the reader into simply observing him, as he observes the bypassing world. It is by no means a stretch to state that Robert Grainier is not, on the surface, the typical Western hero, either in representation or action. Johnson tells of his paranoia in the opening chapter of the book—“Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.” His fear is highlighted by the visual nature of the passage. Envisioning the sun falling over the horizon to make way for the night during a long walk home, all the while seeing the man you aided in attempting to lynch out of the corners of your mind, most certainly lends itself to the idea that Grainier is a paranoid (and possibly superstitious) man.
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It is rare, too, that Johnson gives us physical or sensory details depicting Grainier’s struggle. Certainly, the description of his crew of woodsmen is rugged and grandiose. That description was, though, indicative of his crew , rather than a portrayal of a hero typically found in the Western genre. As Jane Tompkins says about the Western hero in her introduction to West of Everything, “His pain is our pleasure. It guarantees the sensations are real.” Physical sensations, in this book, give way to emotional connections. Tompkins also goes on to say that the Western hero is self-righteous and silent, and has a pathetic determination to be tough. Grainier is most certainly silent, but he does not exude self-righteousness or toughness. He instead exudes fear and reclusiveness. In this aspect, the stark contrast in their characteristics between Western norms and that of Train Dreams
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  • Fall '12
  • Oliphant
  • Sociology, Western United States, train dreams, Robert Grainier

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