National Book Award winner Johnson is back, and, though brief, his book is sure to pack a punch (just think about Tree of Smoke). Robert Grainer, a day laborer in the early 20th-century American West, suffers all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune even as the country is radically transformed into something bigger and brighter. With a reading group guide; grab it.[Page 68]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
National Book Award winner Johnson (Tree of Smoke) has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer. Born in 1886, orphaned by age six and placed with cousins, he's not outwardly remarkable or compelling as the episodes of his life unfold. He marries Gladys and fathers Kate while working for a timber company, and he witnesses disparate events and characters from influenza epidemics and the advent of automobiles and airplanes to an unscheduled area stop by a young Elvis Presley. Few if any of these leave much of an impression on Robert or on a reader; instead, the appeal here lies in setting and mood. The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers. VERDICT Fans of the literary end of historical fiction (with a dash of magical realism), American West/Pacific Northwest settings, or authors like Bret Harte or Cormac McCarthy should appreciate this one. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/7/11.]--Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast, TX[Page 77]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume--a reissue of a 2003 O. Henry Prize-winning novella that originally appeared in the Paris Review--but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson's epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus' Son. The story is a snapshot of early 20th-century America as railroad laborer Robert Granier toils along the rails that will connect the states and transform his itinerant way of life. Drinking in tent towns and spending summers in the wilds of Idaho, Granier misses the fire back home that leaves no trace of his wife and child. The years bring diminishing opportunities, strange encounters, and stranger dreams, but it's not until after participating in the miracle of flight--and a life-changing encounter with a mythical monster--that Granier realizes what he's been looking for. An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC