My Archived Reviews
NOTE: When this appeared in the OREGONIAN, on 10/05/03, the section in RED was REMOVED by the editor. Why? Well, YOU be the judge. I guess I shouldn't have wasted the time doing the investigative legwork to make sure my statement was accurate. The OREGONIAN only wants puff pieces, in my experience.
TRAIN, a novel by Pete Dexter; Doubleday, 352 pp. (?!?), $26 (?!?) Release 9/30/03 (?!?) Galley Copy please check!
Book Review by Hart Williams
Lionel Walk, or, as he’s known, Train, is an eighteen-year-old caddy at the elite Brookline Country Club in Los Angeles. As a young black man in 1953 Los Angeles, he has learned to hide his native intelligence and keep his mouth shut. As the novel opens, he meets hard-boiled police detective Miller Packard, a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, who is playing a high-stakes underground golf round with a fat man known as “Pink.” As they reach the sixth green, the other, older caddy, Florida, pitches over, dead. This is only the first of a long sequence of fatal turns the tale will take, as Train is sent to fetch an ambulance, and thence to give $360 from Packard’s bankroll to Florida’s widow.
The ‘superintendent of caddies’ – a nasty mulatto named Sweet – steals the money from Train when he asks for Florida’s address. This eats at Train, and the next day he lies to Sweet that Packard asked for a receipt. Sweet beats Train nearly unconscious with a pool cue, and lets him cool his heels in the caddy shack as the caddies are assigned and reassigned. But a customer has asked to choose his own caddy. It is Packard. He wants Train. For the remainder of the novel, the two will be linked by fate and coincidence.
Later that night, in Newport Beach, Sweet and a huge caddy named Arthur will attempt to steal a yacht, killing the captain and the owner in the process and raping the owner’s much younger wife, Nora. Nora is able to jump into the water and swim to safety. Her assailants can’t swim. When the police arrive, one of them, Miller Packard, recognizes Sweet. Justice, in a sense is served.
But is it? The next day, all the caddies are swept up by the police and interrogated to see if they’re involved. A short series of mishaps completely wrecks Train’s life: he loses his home and mother, his savings and his job. Because of the scandal, no other country club in Los Angeles will hire a former Brookline caddy. Meantime, Miller Packard finds himself becoming more and more involved with the widowed Nora.
Train is allowed to sleep in a boxing gym that his fellow caddy -- an ex-fighter named Plural -- is allowed to crash in. He finds a job as groundskeeper at a new golf course/development. Ultimately, Train will play high stakes underground golf for five figure purses. But the further twists and turns of the plot defy summary.
Dexter is a superb writer. Within two pages I knew that I was in good hands. The narrative flows and weaves, dips and dances like a boxer in a championship bout. The characters are, in many ways, indelibly etched, and there is a deep humanity here. But, like Packard, “the miles away man,” the author sometimes seems far removed from his characters. But Dexter’s sheer storytelling propels the novel along at breakneck speed.
This book reads like the rough draft of the next David Lynch film, crossed with The Legend of Bagger Vance. Certainly it is very much a cinematic novel, and a deeply felt novel, without sentimentality.
There are some problems in Train. Dexter creates some unsettling anachronisms in his 1950s world. There’s this at the Brookline: “For instance they been calling the groundskeeper History all year. As in he’s history.” But that slang wasn’t popularized until at least the 1980s. When writing period pieces, a writer HAS to be very careful about these sorts of time warp errors. Or this: at one point, Plural “been drinking Mogan (sic) David and eating White Castle hamburgers.” Well, White Castle hamburgers are legendary in the Midwest and East Coast, but didn’t show up in Los Angeles (and then in frozen form) until at least 1987. A few pages later, after carefully tossing in some historical information on the 1953 LA bus strike and President Eisenhower, Dexter repeats this menu.
A number of plot threads are thrown away, sometimes for no particular reason: a “Darktown” editor is certain that Sweet and his accomplice were killed by the police to cover up a white murder. At one point, a group of blacks even pickets Nora’s home. But the thread is just dropped. Several other meaningful threads are dropped as well: Packard seems to cease being a cop at some point. Some of this can be explained by the author’s chaotic world-view. But some is sheer sloppiness. However, the writer clearly knew where he was going from page one, and the book moves relentlessly towards its non-predictable – if unsatisfying -- conclusion.
Still, warts and all, this is one of the better novels to come down the wire in a couple of years.