“The Night Train”
By Clyde Edgerton
Little Brown and Co., 224 pages, $23.99.
Clyde Edgerton isn’t exactly known for a darkness at the edge of his towns. His rural South runs more toward warm and wryly funny, and he’s mined his own childhood in Durham, N.C., to create and people it with unforgettable, lovable characters like Raney, Mattie Rigsbee (”Walking Across Egypt”) and the Copeland Family (”The Floatplane Notebooks”).
On the face of it, “The Night Train, ” his 10th novel, is no different. It’s an upbeat story about the inhabitants of sleepy Starke, N.C., in the spring of 1963, told with Edgerton’s familiar affection and deadpan humor. Jokes, practical and otherwise, abound, and much of the action revolves around a dancing chicken and a dog food factory.
The story opens with 16-year-old Larry Lime — full name Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe On Me Nolan — whose first appearance gives the impression of a negative, a cut-out in white space: “The boy leaned in at the open front door of the bar. From inside, he looked like a dark stamp on the bright daylight behind him.”
That day, Larry begins taking music lessons from the town’s jazz guitarist and is soon eager to share what he’s learned with his white friend Dwayne. Working together in Dwayne’s father’s store refinishing furniture, they’re friends on the sly, bucking the town’s segregationist customs.
After Larry’s teacher introduces him to James Brown’s breakout album, “Live at the Apollo, ” the two boys hatch a plan for Dwayne’s newly formed band to reproduce the album note for note. Their enthusiastic practice for the project — for which they learn chords and tricky dance moves — is reserved for times when their racist foreman, Flash Acres, steps out of the office.
Flash is just one of several quirky characters in “The Night Train” — along with his bigoted mother, the hipster jazz musician, Larry’s crusty old grandmother and the town bigwig — who, had they been sketched by a less experienced hand, could have ended up stale as day-old cornbread.
By combining the ordinary with the unexpected, Edgerton sidesteps stereotypes: The 33-year-old Flash, “one of the worst of the crackers, ” spends his Saturday nights dutifully washing his elderly mama’s hair. Larry’s jazz instructor is a hemophiliac who reads Chester Himes novels and, though he hates soul music, loves James Brown.
Aunt Marzie, the Nolan family matriarch, still names the children after a tradition begun when her family were slaves, embedding hope into each lovingly poetic strand. A regular “Amos and Andy” fan, she has at times considered poisoning Flash’s mama.
Then there’s the host of the popular local country music show, Bobby Lee Reese, whose on-air persona as a good ol’ boy who tells folksy anecdotes about his faux family members, conceals a shrewd player who has studied his way into the hearts of both black and white audiences.
Bobby and Edgerton have much in common: They’re both natural-born storytellers whose “families” are at once universal and familiar, the events of their lives typical of most small towns.
In masterful scenes, rendered with the author’s trademark poker face and keen ear for dialogue, Larry studies jazz theory, and Dwayne’s band hones its upcoming performance. Women gossip and preachers get invited to supper. Boys sit on the wall near the auto repair shop, guessing the years and makes of passing cars, and Dwayne and his friend drop a hypnotized rooster from the balcony of the movie theater.
Edgerton once said of a fellow writer, “By showing lives lived, and not explaining ideas, [she] does what good storytellers do — puts in by leaving out.” It’s in this menacing negative space that the power of “The Night Train” resides.
Sweeping change — peace marches, sit-ins, burnings, bombings, murders and riots — reverberates outside Starke’s sheltering boundaries, its effect limited to threats: The local Klan promises retaliation if Martin Luther King Jr. sets foot in the county; Flash swears he’ll go to Greensboro “and kill one of them sit-in guys.”
“He don’t mean no harm, ” Dwayne tells Larry; it’s all talk.
But the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi is still fresh in Larry’s mother’s mind, a crime that will never be punished. She’d like to see Larry move up north, where her older son now lives — Chicago, where Till’s mother once kept her boy safe.
When Larry takes Dwayne “noodling” — an old technique for catching catfish by hand — their jokey, gruesome talk about losing fingers in the process hints at the risks they’re taking in being seen together, and at a lurking danger that can only be felt.
In another scene late in the book, where Dwayne suggests that Larry stowaway in the trunk of his car to see “The Bermuda Triangle” at the all-white drive-in, Edgerton takes the most teenage of all pranks and by way of a few well-chosen details — a rope, a blanket, a black hole where people disappear forever — evokes something far more chilling.
Luckily for these two boys, music — not violence — becomes the force that ultimately ushers in change. Starke is not the place, Edgerton suggests, where anything so horrific could ever take place — no one is going to drag Larry Lime off in the back of a truck to torture him for sneaking into a drive-in.
But there are places where it did happen. And between the lines of this slender novel is the dark stamp on the bright daylight that makes sure we remember.