BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Clyde Edgerton
2011, Little, Brown
Filed under: Literary
It’s tricky to write a book about music. You run the risk of trying to approximate the sound of it with written words, and failing: “See, like this. You play this: do-do do-do do-do do-do. And then the chord: dat dat-dat dat. Real fast. See? Listen.”
Similarly, books about race relations, especially in, say, 1960s America, have a thin line to walk between vapid feel-goodery and mindless, obviously deplorable racism.
Mix the two of those tall orders together and you get The Night Train, a nice, but ultimately rudderless novel in which nothing very bad and nothing very good ever quite seems to happen.
It makes sense that Clyde Edgerton based this novel on a true story, because anybody making it up would have made up… more. Edgerton’s slight plot follows black kid named Larry Lime, as he gets better at the piano. He plays with white kids and they have the idea to imitate, note for note and pause for pause, James Brown’s album Live at the Apollo. Larry Lime also has a chicken named Redbird that he’s taught to dance on a pan. Between James Brown and Redbird, the white boys in the band hope to get on TV.
The substance of the novel comes in vignette-like chapters that follow different characters—Larry, Larry’s white buddy Dwayne, Dwayne’s white buddy Flash, and a couple others. The characters joke around, practice music, and experience mild incidents.
One of the chapters goes like this: Larry takes Dwayne “noodling,” which is a type of fishing in which you stick your hand in underground logs, hoping a catfish will try to swallow your fingers, and then you grab the fish’s gills and catch it. It can be dangerous because you might spook a snake or a snapping turtle, and get bit or even lose a finger. But Larry and Dwayne don’t get bit. They also don’t catch a fish. They try a couple logs and don’t find anything. The end.
A lot of Night Train feels like this. There are stakes set, and danger distant on the horizon, but where we are is just a day like any other. Where there are options for more drama, Edgerton rejects them. In their place, we get a few scenes of mild humor. Like this scene, when Flash is taking care of his mother, who’s just had a stroke:
He found the Listerine, held it to her lips. She helped him tilt the bottle up, down, then she swallowed.
Mama! You don’t drink Listerine.
She was frowning.
See, you don’t drink it. You rinse. You rinse.
She was still frowning.
Just rinse, he said.
She tried again, drank another mouthful.
Mama. Damn it. I’m putting this up. You’re not supposed to drink it. Jesus.
Edgerton has a great ear for both dialogue and dialect, and such passages are fun, but never gripping. Even the most monumental of the everyday occurrences of the plot are met with shrugs by everybody involved. Such as when the dancing chicken, Redbird, the boys’ hope for fame and fortune, is killed before their TV audition by a rogue possum. Larry’s reaction? Devastation? Hopelessness? Nope. He says, simply, “Now I’ll have to teach another one.”
It’s the same way with everybody, with everything. Emotions never rise, and the novel never reaches a crescendo. Maybe if I knew more about jazz, this would make sense, maybe Edgerton’s leaving pauses in between the notes and I just don’t get it.
But I like novels that run toward the fire, not ones that kind of meander around in no particular direction. The Night Train is the latter.
Similar reads: The Marrowbone Marble Company, by Glenn Taylor; Erasure, by Percival Everett
[A review copy was provided.]