Johnson begins his deceptively slim book with “In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier 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.” This compact paragraph blooms into a brief scene of the attempt which, like the book, resonates with meaning greater than the sum of its small moving parts. Grainier helps three railway men make “every effort” to chuck the guy off a bridge. But he has a desperate hold on life and breaks free; either frustrated or impressed, his would-be executioners are by then happy to let him go. He squirrels his way to safety and Grainier, on his walk home with a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his nursing wife, sees the man everywhere: “Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.” Again and again Johnson uses a moment to reveal character and show how easily the trajectory of a life can be changed.
The novella traces Grainier’s life, with Johnson flitting dexterously in time, sometimes covering decades in one chapter and then, in the next, a single event. Always, he uses a few precise words to convey a great deal. As in this sentence, which ends the attempted killing: “Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.” What a wonderfully odd choice Johnson has made to repeat the “a,” evoking wind in the singular and complicating the rhythm of his sentence. This is a expertly-crafted book, more etched from granite than written down, it seems to me. Continue reading