Freighthopping Fiction: Borrowing from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams

Allegra Hyde

Setting serves as the flesh and blood of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. The novella nestles into the dawn of the twentieth century, into the feeling of America shaking itself awake and standing on its feet. “He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember,” writes Johnson of his protagonist, Robert Grainier, “and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.” Though roughly hedged by the beginning and end of Grainier’s life, time nonetheless remains an imprecise entity. The opening scene depicts a thirty-something Grainier assisting an attempted murder. In Chapter 2, we fast forward to the 1950s, when Grainier views the World’s Fattest Man, and then beyond to when he has “confused the chronology of the past.” Throughout the novella, history is alternately compressed and dilated. The scope of Grainier’s life—an allegory, in many ways, for America itself—gets shrunk small enough to fit into the palms of readers’ hands, but also sprawls across pages.


When I began writing my short story “Naples,” I wanted to borrow Johnson’s techniques of temporal malleability. How do you get the entirety of a life on the page without resorting to the steady plod of biography? In Train Dreams, Johnson opens with Grainier joining several men as they nearly throw a Chinese laborer off a train trestle. The laborer manages to escape, and the incident isn’t overtly referred to again. Yet the unspoken nausea of this near-crime diffuses throughout the rest of the text. As Grainier carries on with his life, often suffering in the most painful of ways, the cast of that moment—that wrongdoing—remains present. Time overlaps, doubles back, compounds. Johnson’s Train Dreams emulates the habits of memory—the reason, perhaps, why Grainier’s life seems so authentic and rich.

In “Naples,” I likewise begin the narrative with a moment of misjudgment. The protagonist, Esmé, overhears a rape while staying in a youth hostel. She does nothing and nothing happens to her, and yet there it is: that moment, forever shading her life. Like Grainier, Esmé does not particularly regret what she has done. Sometimes she forgets that it happened at all. And yet that moment continues to define her, drive her, and otherwise linger.

“Naples” is a short story—quite short, in fact, running less than two thousand words—and nowhere near as complex as Johnson’s novella, but like Train Dreams, it seeks to encapsulate a life. To evoke the layering rhythms of memory, to fit time into the palm of one’s hand and consider who we are when our lives are fully distilled.

Allegra Hyde's short stories and essays appear in Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She serves as prose editor for Hayden's Ferry Review and curates similes at Allegra's story, "Naples," appears in the Winter 2014 issue, 299.1.

Photograph by Emmanuel Huybrechts