When I got my future brother-in-law’s name for our family Christmas exchange I knew I wanted to give him a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – but on looking on the shelf at the bookstore I discovered we were clean out. Tucked in their place were a couple copies of his tiny publication, the almost Polaroid sized Train Dreams. I bought one and over the next couple days read the thing – because could I really give a book I hadn’t read?
More so than a literal Christmas story would, Train Dreams felt topical. Last week I drove across the state to settle back into my parents' house on the wide plains. Here is an alternate reality across the state from where I go to school. Here we chop wood in the yard of my parents’ farmhouse, feeling like the only people in the half grassy tan and half cold blue world. Black cows dot the horizon, making low sounds and the dogs race around with an air of giddy pride.
In Train Dreams our hero is content to live alone in a cabin he built himself. He works his body into deterioration. The quiet narrative encompasses the entirety of his life, drifting back and forth between the loss of his family, rebuilding his life and memories of an empty childhood. Simply put, Train Dreams is the tough, quiet story of a man in northern Idaho making do with what he can in a landscape in which death is always a threat. In his way, Johnson explores the hardworking and independent tradition of the American west and touches on the deep necessity of self-reliance somewhat akin to Whitman and Thoreau.
Reading this book felt like learning all there is to know about a familiar stranger from my hometown. Comfortable, believable, real. Yet, Johnson expertly introduces something close to magical realism close to the end that made me, after closing the compact paperback, lean back and stare at the wall for a good while.
So, by the way, read Jesus’ Son, too. It is the beautifully poetic, heart wrenching drug addled cousin to Train Dreams.
Without meaning to I followed that particular novel with a book I’ve been meaning to read for years – Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. My emotions confuse themselves when it comes to Capote; he was friends with Harper Lee, so I love him. He was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film Capote, so I love him. Yet I'd never read his book, or even seen that movie!
Well, obviously that was ridiculous, but my respect and love wasn't misplaced. In Cold Blood is widely recognized as the first ever creative nonfiction publication. It is masterful.
Capote demands respect for his ability to reconstruct the daily lives and conversations of not only the two convicted killers in a mass murder in the speck of a town of Holcomb, Kansas, but the people murdered. We begin the book with the play-by-play of the murdered family’s last day and end it with word for word conversations with the killers. Capote holds our hand and shows us every last drop of necessary information about the murders, the discovery, the hunt for killers, the trial – everything. And each page is riveting.
The whole book is constructed against the backdrop of yet another small town to connect with, a town with less than three hundred people and its sister, Garden City, with a population of only a few thousand. Through extensive research, which included immersing himself in the town, the case, the trial itself, getting to know the murderers - Capote introduces us to a disconcertingly familiar place.
I must warn that reading In Cold Blood in a strikingly similar small town to the one being written about, will make for a few sleepless nights. What if? What if? I know exactly how it happened in Holcomb, so, what if?
(Should I go on? If you like In Cold Blood, go ahead and read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn, a man who was tricked by a professional trickster who ended up being a murderer.)
A poem to play me out- or, rather, an excerpt from a legendary poem by a legendary Montana poet
From "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg"
by Richard Hugo
Isn't this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn't this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don't empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?