Alone With Your Thoughts
By David Baumann
Anyone who has spent a legitimate length of time alone knows how the mind can wander. When there’s no one to talk to, the mind can begin to form an inner monologue that you never knew existed. You can find peace and clarity in times by yourself, just as you many find anxiety and strife. It’s hard to even reach a place of such isolation in today’s world. Technology keeps us always connected, often preventing us from a true feeling of being alone in the world. These moments of inner peace can help many people reach important decisions in life, but just as easy, too much thought can lead to confusion of the surrounding world.
If you have never experienced this state of mind in your everyday life, the next best thing may be reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. The novel follows the life of Robert Grainier, an all American woodsman, as he lives his life in the rural northwest of early 20th century America. The third person narrator often delves deeply into the inner thoughts of Grainier as he loses his family to a tragic forest fire, and proceeds to live a life of isolation in a reclusive log cabin. Grainer travels around the area for work, befriends multiple animals, and recalls his past family and life. Maintaining what little optimism he has, “he lives a long life, owns one acre of property, has one lover, one wagon, two horses, and the train tracks that surround him.”
Reading this book brings you into the rigid northwest world of a working class America. Johnson creates a vivid landscape filled with looming forests and small blue-collar towns. The landscape sounds beautiful and luscious, yet provides an unforgiving harshness to many moments in the book. Grainier inhabits and embodies this world as he undergoes many changes. With his family tragically lost, his mind contemplates the spirits of the dead and his place as a community “hermit”. He has visions of legendary folk tales about wolves, and begins to howl late at night. Spending such long periods of isolation in the woods takes its toll on his mind. His surroundings become a character in itself, sending him messages and hallucinations of perceived importance. His mind often brings him to thoughts that make you question his sanity, yet never do you question if what he thinks is real. Everything is genuine with Grainier, his love, his fears, and his life. It’s easy to comprehend everything he experiences, even if you begin to question the actual authenticity of the events. No matter how insane his actions, his thoughts and emotion remain true.
Train Dreams remains pretty straightforward (despite some interesting encounters with wolves). It’s an honest representation of a simple man who copes with losing everything. The novel stands at a short 114 pages, yet feels much longer. It manages to span an entire lifetime with timely flashbacks and looks ahead. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to experience a truthful representation of the “man in the woods”. Denis Johnson beautifully creates the life and death of a simple man in a complex state of mind. Train Dreams is a quick read, but well worthy of a long discussion.