The Pulitzer Prize wasn’t awarded for fiction this year for the first time since 1977. None of the three finalists–Denis Johnson for Train Dreams, Karen Russell for Swamplandia, and the late David Foster Wallace for The Pale King–were chosen because no book received a majority vote.
I’m posting here the beginning of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (and a little video prize after). I dare you to stop reading after the first sentence. I wanted to buy this novella for my Kindle, but it’s ten bucks, which I think is ridiculous for a 128 page book (that’s like three page clicks on my Kindle–I like small font). I’ll pay five maybe even six bucks, but I may as well walk down to Powell’s or the library and read it standing in the aisle. The publisher, Macmillan, set the price. Sorry Macmillan, but: “The price is wrong.” Anyway, read this and try to stop reading it after the first sentence, you won’t be able to (and watch the video after):
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainer took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer, caught or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainer, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit’s bare feet. The man facing him, Mr. Sears, of Spokane International’s management, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: “Boys, I’m damned if we ever see the top of this heap!” Then we’re hailing him all the way? was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the CHinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.
They cam abreast of the others, a gang of a dozen men pausing in the sun to lean on their tools and wipe at sweat and watch this thing. Grainier held on convulsively to the Chinaman’s horny foot, wondering at himself, and the man with the other foot let loose and sat down gasping in the dirt and got himself kicked in the eye before Graineir took charge of the free-flailing limb. “It was just for fun. For fun,” the man sitting in the dirt said, and to his confederate there he said, “Come on, Jel Toomis, let’s give it up.” “I can’t let loose,” this Mr. Toomis say, “I’m the one’s got him by the neck!” and laughed with a gust of confusion passing across his features. “Well, I’ve got him!” Grainier said, catching both the little demon’s feet tighter in his embrace. “I’ve got the bastard, and I’m your man!”
The party of executions got to the midst of the last completed span, sixty feet above the rapids, and made every effort to toss the Chinaman over. But he bested them by clinging to their arms legs, weeping his gibberish, until suddenly he let go and grabbed the beam beneath him with one hand. He kicked free of his captors easily, as they were trying to shed themselves of him anyway, and went over the side, dangling over the gorge and making hand-over-hand out over the river on the skeleton form of the next span. Mr. Toomis’s companion rushed over now, balancing on a beam, kicking at the fellow’s fingers. The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while other, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped. Mr. Sears removed from the holster on his belt a large old four-shot black-powder revolver and took his four, to no effect. By then the Chinaman had vanished.
Hiking to his home after this incident, Grainier detoured two miles to the store at the railroad village of Meadow Creek to get a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his wife, Gladys, and their infant daughter, Kate. It was hot going up the hill through the woods toward the cabin, and before getting the last mile he stopped and bathed in the river, the Moyea, at a deep place upstream from the village.
Dang, that’s good.
13 thoughts on “Why is the non-Pulitzer-prize-winning Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams novella ten bucks for kindle?”
This is the best, most consistent, freshest voice I’ve read since Buechner’s “Godric.” I’ll read this if you read that. Same kind of deal. The voice simply stuns you with how thoroughgoing and powerful it is.
“Five friends I had, and two of them snakes. Tune and Fairweather they were, thick round as a man’s arm, my bedmates and playfellows, keepers of my skimped hearth and hermit’s heart till in a grim pet I bade them go that day and nevermore to come again, nevermore to hiss their snakelove when they saw me dragging near or coil themselves for warmth about my shaggy legs. They went. They never came again.
“I spied them now and then, puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy. It was him as I sought in freezing Wear to teach a lesson that he never learned nor has to this day learned though wiser, you’d think, for sixty winters’ dunking in bone-chilling, treacherous Wear. Not him. I would spy my gentle Tune and watchdog, firetooth Fairweather watching me as still as death in the long grass or under a stone as I hied home sodden on cracked feet, but none of us ever let on that we were seeing what we saw until we saw no longer. I miss them no more or hardly do, past most such sweet grieving now at age above a hundred if I’ve got time straight for once.
Godric’s a great novel. It also lost out on the Pulitzer prize. To Marilynn’s robinson’s housekeeping.
I’m wrong, Godric was nominated in 1981, and Housekeeping in 82. Both lost.
Here’s why the e-book price is so high:
And I’m not happy about it.
Alright. Now that I have read the first sentence and stopped just to prove to myself that I could, I am going to go back and read the rest… oh. You still won the dare.
You can read the rest of the chapter on amazon. I’m gonna have to break down and buy the book regardless of the price.
Wow thanks for this and thanks for following me. I will wait for Train Dreams (if I cam after that start) to come online in the library. Fiction, but I know nearly a hundred years later many chinese are still suffering, as are many everywhere. Power of the pen… keep going all of us…
I loved Dream Trains. I got it from the library. The last pages sucked the air from me. I must of reread it several times – a few times out loud. It should have been given the Pulitzer Prize. It was a phenomenal read.
I’m going to read it and soon as I can.
Have you read The Curfew by Jesse Ball? Another great book, difficult at times, touching, wondrously imaginative, and an exciting piece because it is so novel.
BTW happy mothers day….;-o