Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Goya Made Human

Train, by Pete Dexter, Read by Dion Graham, Recorded Books, LLC, 2003

Train, Peter Dexter’s riff on the crime noir novels of 1950s Los Angeles lets you know from its earliest lines that it has no intention of being sweet or gentle. “As his grandmother had pointed out long ago,” we read of police sergeant Miller Packard, one of the novel’s main characters, “he wasn’t a real sweetheart anyway.” When grandmas are cracking down, you know it’s the truth. Furthermore, we read:

He had spent maybe a thousand Sundays in church, though — make that four hundred — and then two edgy years on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean, and then five very edgy days in the Pacific Ocean without the battleship, and before any of that, he’d deliberately and often put himself in places where he saw awful things happen not only to people who deserved it but also to people who just seemed to stumble in at the wrong time, walking into the picture as the shutter clicked, through no fault of their own.

Which is to say, quite bluntly, that we are not about to follow the life of a very nice man. This is rather curious. Because in relation to the titular character of Dexter’s novel, the 18 year old caddy and golf prodigy Lionel “Train” Walk, who we meet right after Packard is brutally attacked in the street for a gambling debt, this not “a real sweetheart” is one of the only decent people with whom Train comes into contact.

Train the character is Train the novel’s heart and soul. He is also the only truly good person in the novel — and even he beats his mother’s boyfriend to death with a chair leg. The revelation of that fact, after the scene had passed, after it had seemed over for some time, is the kind of thing Dexter does to us throughout the course of the novel. Just when we suspect we understand how his complicated characters’ minds work, Dexter wrenches us out of our comfortable beliefs as roughly as a moving automobile might move you out of a vertical plane. And you remain just as stunned, but just as swept along. Your understanding and belief in the world is just as radically altered.

Of course, with a black and a white main character in fifties America, race is more than just a subtext. In Dexter’s California, race is a throbbing open wound many characters try to ignore in their “enlightened” way, just as others are trying to pour salt into it. While Packard remains outwardly unperturbed socializing with the young black caddy, the characters with whom Packard is friends and acquaintances are reactive in the extreme. Other golfers at the Brookline club, where Packard golfs and where Train caddies, refer to all caddies across the board as “Leroy.”

When wealthy Norah Rose and her husband are killed on their boat by two caddies from Brookline, the same course that Train works for, all the caddies are dismissed across the board, a collective punishment to the black employees. The general police response is even worse. The overtness of white power is never explicitly pointed at didactically, but is laid out with the methodical nature of a detail oriented pathologist.

Nora herself, who becomes romantically involved with Packard after he summarily executes the two caddies while investigating the crime, remains in a fog of fear of blacks, a plot complication that fuels the novel’s disheartening climax and disturbing conclusion. Briefly further agitating the plot is a hideously scarred black journalist who taps a deep well of African-American paranoia in his writing of incendiary accounts of police brutality — completely founded in this case, though built on whispers into operatic misdeeds.

Menace lies everywhere in Dexter’s writing, even in a dog at Train’s house, a nervous dog who pisses on the floor if anyone comes in the front door and frightens it. High strung from having been run over when younger, in his old age he flinches even when a shadow passes overhead. The dog carries menace not with him as a weapon, but around him as a kind of foreshadowing. A dog like that, you know someone’s going to kill it eventually in a book like this.

And because of this ever present threat, the book reads like a trip through hell, every opportunity has a snake curled in its breast, every chance meeting leads us deeper into the pit. Packard is nearly as amoral as the world in which he lives yet he is the only force for good strong enough to stand up to the (greater) depravity. And he remains compelling, both for his kindness to Train and his humorous fearlessness. After an Irish mob family golfer insults Train during a private contest, in the presence of the rest of the mob family, Packard pokes the family godfather (a paraplegic in a wheel chair) in his colostomy bag and asks, “Albert, you shit in that or is it your lunch?”

Train also reads like a visit to a kind of freak collection, women who gobble down ticks in the middle of job interviews, an addled ex-boxer who taps his cigarette into his palm and eats his ashes, midgets, men with scorched skin, a woman with one nipple sliced off. All of these strange permutations wring out bitter little laughs at the occasional absurdity. In a quiet pause in conversation about something else entirely, the boxer, Plural, blurts out, “You know, I never ate a duck.” No one else in the book has either, but they know better than to say so. Plural is infamous for his sudden, apparently motiveless knock-outs delivered to unsuspecting victims.

Dexter himself writes like a literary Plural. Once you get in hitting range of his mitts, expect a KO from a strange corner.

Reader Dion Graham has such a butter smooth voice that for the first time in a long time, I didn’t alter the playback speed. I just let him spell it all out for me. (I usually try to get a print copy of the book and adjust the mp3 playback speed to match my own reading pace. Otherwise I’m trapped listening to molasses tongued types drag their sorry selves through 20 hours of reading.) His rendering of one particular character sounds precisely like comedian Al Franklin which is to say patently white but without going for the broad caricature. Graham sounds like he can make any book worth listening to. That’s a skill to cultivate.

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