“You know how sometimes you read a story in the paper?” says a character in Train, Pete Dexter’s hardboiled new novel. “[A] person out in the valley somewhere stepped out the front door to get the milk and was run over by the milk truck? … Well, from what I’ve seen, it happens more than you think.”
This statement, full of chance yet riddled by the gritty reality of life, could have come straight from the mouth of its author, Dexter. A former columnist at The Sacramento Bee who began writing novels after he left the River City, Dexter has spent his career as a fiction writer reminding us that bad things do indeed happen. Really bad ones.
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a place full of boozy glamour and broken dreams, Train is Dexter’s most stylish reminder yet of this truth. The novel’s eponymous young hero, a black 18-year-old named Train, works as a caddie at a country club where fat men wager 3-inch-thick bankrolls and like their caddies to be invisible. Train has no problem with this job requirement, even though he could probably keep up with Ben Hogan over 18 holes.
Until Miller Packard comes along, that is. Packard is a mysterious sergeant for the San Diego police department. Whimsical and full of coiled aggression, Packard takes a shine to Train, whom he realizes might be the only honest man in Los Angeles. When two other black caddies commit a violent crime, Packard keeps tabs on Train, rescues him from destitution and forms an unusual bond with him.
As with Dexter’s 1995 novel, The Paperboy, Train starts slowly and then settles into a rhythm of short and long chapters broken down into discreet set pieces. The game of golf is described with exquisite care. It both provokes and sublimates the strained relationship between blacks and whites.
Dexter narrates throughout in third-person, but Train is essentially the novel’s eyes and ears. He is constantly observing and yet painfully aware that he will never be able to act on what he deduces. This tension between what Train knows and what he can say makes Packard a particularly volatile character because he wants Train to get the respect he deserves.
Although Dexter writes like a novelist, he has always thought like a reporter, and his angle here is about the tense coexistence of two societies. There are the black caddies and course employees, who scramble over each other for work and bragging rights. On the other hand, there are the gangsters and dissipated rich who come to the course to sublimate their violent real-life competition with a golf game.
Train forms a bridge between these two societies and through his eyes, we see that, black or white, people are going to take advantage of one another. This dynamic turns explosive when grappling for power crosses racial lines.
This violence may seem melodramatic, but in Dexter’s world—as with that of James Ellroy’s fiction—it makes sense. The violence is often senseless and costly, and it sometimes happens to people trying to do the right thing. When Packard starts taking Train to golf courses all over the country to win back some pride and earnings from white players, you know things will end wrong. Still, because this is Dexter and because each one of his sentences reminds you of the danger of just being alive, you’ll keep reading.