Friday, April 02, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “Train,”
by Pete Dexter

(Editor’s note: This is the 88th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from infrequent Rap Sheet contributor David Thayer, who is also the author of his own blog. Thayer is represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Literary Agency for a novel called Black Forest.)

Since this is a part of a series about forgotten novels, you can assume a few things from the start. I liked this Pete Dexter book, and though it was published fairly recently (back in 2003) I thought it was worthy of a second glance.

Train received a lot of coverage after its publication, with major reviews appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Boston Herald, and USA Today. The critiques were generally positive, although the Times reviewer found one of this story’s principal characters, police sergeant Miller Packard, to be rather clichéd as “The Mile Away Man.” Most reviewers mentioned the grim worldview Dexter puts forth and several complained about subplots that go nowhere. My thought is, Dexter spends the entire novel telling us that most plots go nowhere or end badly. That’s why this is such a great example of noir fiction.

The setting is Los Angeles in 1953. A couple of black men, caddies at the private Brookline Country Club, board a yacht, kill the owner, and rape his wife. Packard is the officer who responds, arriving on the scene just in time to put both criminals in handcuffs. Instead of carting them off to jail, though, he executes them and throws their bodies into the harbor. This excerpt shapes the scene:
A moment passed, and then the sergeant sighed and picked up the shotgun. He broke the breach to check the load, then closed it again. Arthur’s eyes opened at the sound. He began to sit up, and the shot tore away his shoulder and the side of his neck. He was strangely still for a moment. A pink mist floated out behind him, and then gravity took his head sideways and down, in the direction of the missing part of his neck. There were tiny noises as bits and pieces fell into the water.
The dead men had recognized Packard from the country club as a golfer who always specifies the caddy he wants, Lionel Walk, a teenager whose nickname is Train. After Packard disposes of those yacht killers, the novel sheds most of the conventions of the crime genre--likable protagonist, good versus evil--to explore an amoral man’s enthusiasms.

Norah Rose, the surviving victim of the recent yacht attack, seems content to drift into Packard’s orbit. Her claim to fame is that she lives in a house that once survived the crash of a Howard Hughes aircraft--a cunning metaphor for the battle-damaged enclave of West Los Angeles. Norah’s life is a construct of careful liberalism (she supports America’s nascent civil-rights movement) and blinding fear. When Train eventually moves onto her property with his deranged friend, Nora’s abstract racial tolerance falls victim to her fantasy fear obsession, triggered by this new proximity to black strangers.

Miller Packard takes Train under his wing, turns him into his prodigy, and mounts a one-man Professional Golf Association tour. Train is a legendary talent on the golf course, a caddy who’s far more gifted at the game than the wealthy white men who bet money against him. Packard is Pete Dexter’s notion of a sophisticated racist, a man who sees things as they are and figures out how to play the angles for personal gain. There are subtleties in the relationship between Packard and Train that hint at caring, just as there are nuances of love between Packard and Norah. Ultimately, though, Packard’s sheer viciousness prohibits anything like happiness. He has a restless need for destruction and the novel’s conclusion stays true to Packard’s damaged character.

READ MORE:The Book You Have to Read: God’s Pocket, by Pete Dexter,” by David Corbett (The Rap Sheet).


pattinase (abbott) said...

I really enjoyed TRAIN although I found it enigmatic. We are not sure what the book is about for long periods.

Paul D. Brazill said...

All I really know about Dexter is the film of Paris Trout-which I did like a lot.

Train lokks pretty tasty, though.

David Thayer said...

The scenes without Packard drift a little although they're interesting.