Pete Dexter’s Train will surprise you. You keep thinking you have a handle on it, then you realize soon afterward that no, you actually have no fucking idea where this shit is going. If he wasn’t such an effortless storyteller, this would be a huge problem. For pretty much the entire second act of the novel (if any sort of three act structure can even be imposed on Train, that is), you are simply following along with characters, knowing that at some point they have to meet up again, but what exactly will become of that, who the fuck knows? And when you do finally reach the climax, guaranteed you didn’t see that shit coming, dear reader.
But like Nerd favorite Scott Phillips, though you may not know where this wild historical novel is heading, the journey is hilarious and dark enough to keep you skipping on down the road, The Wiz-style (there’s a reference we didn’t need…).
Train is the story of three characters in 1950’s L.A. who come in and out of each other’s lives in both violent and funny ways. Lionel “Train” Walk is a young black man who caddies at an all-white country club called Brookline. One day one of his totes, a cool cop named Miller Packard, takes notice of Train’s natural skill for the game. Miller Packard later comes to the rescue of Norah Rose, a victim of a brutal rape aboard her husband’s yacht. These three characters will all collide into one another’s lives in unexpected ways, ways that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that is.
Like a Sopranos episode, Dexter seems intent on subverting the reader’s expectations at every turn. There are pay-offs and connections made, just not the ones you thought were gonna happen. Also like The Sopranos, when the violence lands in this beast, it lands fucking hard. The yacht scene is almost too much to take, the scene scars your brain like a hot poker through your temple, lingering and singeing you throughout the rest of the book.
And we need that scene to resonate because for much of the rest of the book, there’s not a whole lot of crime shit going down. Shit’s happening and a story is being told for sure, but not in some whiz-bang thriller type of way. Luckily Dexter’s character work is sharp enough, his prose clever enough, and his dialogue hilarious enough to carry you through. The attention to historical detail is pretty damned sly too (Norah’s Beverly Hills home is still being fixed after Howard Hughes plowed through it with his plane).
But what is most remarkable about Train is Dexter’s handling of race and gender issues in regards to the time and place of the novel. There is no preaching to be found in this novel, nor cloying revisionism neither. Dexter simply presents the characters and their situations in all their complexity and the rest is up to you. Well, that’s not entirely true – the handling of a certain character and his girlfriend trying to get an integrated golf course/housing development is sort of brutally satiric, but everywhere else (wow, totally subverted my own point there, but onward we go!)…
And speaking of characters, there's a minor feat in this novel that many readers may miss. Miller Packard is certainly the hinge and main draw of this novel, yet we really know very little about him. There's a few passages at the beginning and end of the novel that let us into his head somewhat, but overall what we know about him is through how other characters perceive him. This choice is very much in keeping with Packard's cool and detached demeanor and makes him all the more interesting, but few writers would allow for such ambiguity in such a major character.
So if you’re up for a dark, funny period novel that raises challenging gender and racial issues and defie expectations, Pete Dexter’s Train ought to float your boat…or steam-power your train (sometimes you write something so lame that it just has to stay in the draft – Gene Shalit has jack-shit on me).