This novella, published in 2002 and again in 2011 by Denis Johnson, winner of an O. Henry Award, may quite possibly be my favorite among everything I’ve read by him so far. My one problem with the book (as it was published on it’s own) is the deceptive title, and I suppose it was the review on the back of the audio book which said something to the effect that it was about people working on the transcontinental railroad. The story is actually a little more modern then I expected, taking place mostly in the early 1900’s and not the late 1800’s. It’s highly focused on a single character named Robert Grainer, most of the story takes place in his life shortly after working on the railroad but in a number of flash forwards it is revealed that he lives into the 1960’s.
This Character, Grainer, when you look at his story is a very insignificant man, one of the many such men that came out of that time period, more or less a hermit throughout most of his life, but the book dives into the spirit of humanity and shows that everyone does have an effect on the world around. The book is a beautiful biography of a man no one would otherwise read about.
Like all the other Johnson book’s i’ve read it is packed with vivid scenes. The one that really sticks out in this book, is the scene where Grainer sees Kootenai Bob on the last day of his life. Kootenai Bob, a native American (or “Indian” as it’s written in the book) is Drunk for the first time in his life, lapping at a bucket of beer like a dog, he stumbles onto the railroad tracks, and the rest of the afternoon his people gather the all the pieces of him that they can find. The passage is vivid, brutal, and sad. It speaks volumes about the relationship between Native Americans and the settlers in this era, and also the effect of alcohol on Native American culture, which was and to a degree continues to be devastating. Just so you know the above is highly abbreviated, the passage is written much more beautifully then I laid out, and after reading it just once I seem to remember every word from it.
There is an awful lot I’d like to say about this book, but I really don’t want to give too much away, it would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I will say this though, it is highly worthy of multiple reads. Also, for those of you playing along, this is the first book that I’ve reviewed on both Good Reads and The Obscurity Symposium.