Discoveries: Denis Johnson, Andrei Makine, & Sue Coe

By Susan Salter ReynoldsJuly 30, 2012

Discoveries: Denis Johnson, Andrei Makine, & Sue Coe

Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation by Sue Coe
The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
Train Dreams

Picador; First Edition edition, May 22, 2012. 116 pp.

This lovely edition of Johnson’s classic novella gives us another chance to add Train Dreams to our permanent collections. For all its simplicity, the story has a quaking resonance; it merely follows the life of one Robert Grainier, but it spans the American era, when trains and roads and finally airplanes changed the landscape and the importance of many things.

Grainier was born in 1886, “either in Utah or in Canada,” orphaned, but no one knew how, and sent by train to live with cousins in Idaho. It was a time of great flux and movement — refugees and migrant workers and entrepreneurs drew new lines across the country. Grainier grew up and worked for the railroads, laying tracks. He was Adam in a Garden of Eden that was being destroyed, hacked to pieces by corporate greed. He married late, had a baby daughter and came home to the cabin he had built for them one day to find it burned to the ground, his wife and daughter gone. Certain that the curses of a Chinese laborer he and some fellow employees had come close to murdering one fateful day have caused the calamity, Grainier lives the rest of his life alone and sorrowful. He dies in 1968.

This is an eerie, multilayered story, like Upton Sinclair’s’ The Jungle, or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, or Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, suffused with guilt. Grainier is an American original, an unforgettable character, but he is also imbued with an everyman quality that makes Train Dreams part story and part fable. It is not a morality tale, nor is it the story of the American Dream. It’s the story of American loneliness, self-destruction, and sorrow.


Andrei Makine
The Life of an Unknown Man

Graywolf; Reprint edition, June 5, 2012. 208 pp.

The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan Shutov is an under-appreciated Russian writer living in Paris, recently dumped by his younger lover. He’s in mourning; reading Chekov, and going back over his 50 years, including the Soviet childhood that rendered him, as his ex reminded him frequently, unbearable and unfit for human relationships. “For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly; but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them.”

Unable to bear the humiliation of his ex-girlfriend’s visits to pick up her things (accompanied by her handsome young new boyfriend), Shutov decides to go back to Russia, to St. Petersburg to find another past lover. Of course it is not the Russia he left twenty years earlier, and the woman has become a real estate operator — juggling apartments and beating the system. Shutov accepts her offer to stay in one of her apartments and it is there he meets an old bedridden man named Volsky.

In less than an hour, Volsky tells Shutov the story of his broken life — his young adulthood in the early 1940s in the besieged city of Leningrad. Everyone was starving; everyone was separated from loved ones; many, including Volsky, were sent to work in the camps. Unlike Shutov, Volsky was able, in spite of the forces working against him, to find true love and to make something meaningful of his life after that love has been taken from him. He becomes a singing teacher for handicapped children, a local legend, and is survived by many grateful students. Shutov takes on Volsky’s story, is inspired and enriched by it. “He now knows that the only words worth writing down arise when language is impossible.” He realizes that he is the child of a terrible era in Russian history, and that he must now tell the stories of those who triumphed in spite of the horror, the “unknown women” and “unknown men” whose graves go unmarked in Soviet cemeteries.

Shutov is an irritating, lugubrious character. But Makine has created a man, a writer, who is lucky enough to wake up, to move beyond himself, to loosen the bonds of his time and his culture and take a stab at leaving something useful for the next generation.


Sue Coe
Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation

OR Books, May 1, 2012. 192 pp.

For several decades, Sue Coe has been drawing and painting the brutality of the meat industry. She snuck into slaughterhouses and, because she carried only a pad and pencil, not cameras, has been allowed access to chicken and other livestock factories and production facilities.

Brief essays accompany the shocking, sorrowful images. Many of the drawings have a Third Reich feel, black and bloody; tortured animals and human workers mutated by their own cauterized feelings. Coe writes of mother cows and pigs separated from their young; of the yearning of animals for family members. She refuses the truism that animals and fish have no feelings, that sheep feel nothing when they are sheared. Her environments, her backdrops are poisoned, toxic, apocalyptic. She writes with certainty that our cruelty will come back to haunt us.

Debeaking, overcrowding, gassing, decapitating, de-hoofing — how is it possible not to consume this terror, this stress, when we eat animals? Greed is evil in Sue Coe’s art, and the evil is everywhere. Coe has been compared to Goya, Katha Kollwitz, and Diego Rivera, but many of these pieces are reminiscent of Blake and Hieronymous Bosch. There is a spiritual terror, the promise of hell that makes them difficult to look at, and even more difficult to look away from.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!