Sometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.
Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life. Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910. He never amounts to much. There isn’t much to tell about his life. He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire. Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.
Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time. Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.
After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family. Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost. A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.
It’s a very simple story, really. The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man. While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.
Should this make for a moving read? Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.
Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane. Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved. The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins
to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.
This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left. The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.
I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.
So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.