Review: Train by Pete Dexter Print E-mail

dexter-train(San Diego Union-Tribune October 5, 2003)

The Fatalist

In Pete Dexter's multiracial Los Angeles, the time is 1953, and the city is quickly being encircled with housing developments and leisure venues to serve the new tracts. Inexorable sunshine and aquaducted water have birthed a spate of golf courses, opportunity mills for game and graft. Small-time syndicates are everywhere—boxing rings, extortion schemes and colluding white cops who will stage a murder if a black man's "inherent criminality" can be fingered.

The wayward center of Dexter's sixth novel (Paris Trout won the National Book Award in 1988) is an 18-year-old black man—real name Lionel, nickname Train. Train's turf is Brookline, a Brentwood country club, where he caddies and occasionally works on the greens. He stays at his mom's place under the vengeful eye of her boyfriend, keeps every feeling to himself and plays a torrid round of golf. But since he's black, he can only practice his stroke in the half-light of early morning or late evening, when the course is closed.

Train's effect on the plot is nonexistent, his significance to others—at least those with power and money—negligible. His loathing of trouble overpowers his rare feeling of self-worth. Fear grounds him, sharpens his suspicion. Facing interrogation after a homicide, in which a white, a Mexican and two blacks have died, Train "had that old feeling that somebody was about to make an example of him for others to heed. That was one of the worst things they could do, make you an example for others to heed."

Just when you think Train's had enough with being used, he backs away or is pushed aside. No one embraces him, so he doesn't embrace himself. About golf, he thinks, "Disappointment was the only thing about the game that lasted. You could try not to get your hopes up, but you might as well tell the cat not to kill the birds. Things work the way they work." It's his cover-to-cover sentiment. The author has fashioned such an innocent, surrounded him with brutality and then allowed him virtually no means of escape, not even a flicker of volition.

Another choiceless character comes to mind: Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son. Bigger is unwittingly drawn into a coterie of white communists, kills one of them accidentally and is put on trial, during which his lawyer argues that social conditions are as much to blame for Bigger's crime as Bigger is.

But Train has no such advocate; he barely possesses self enough to negotiate his desire. He drifts with a Bigger-like aimlessness, or else he flees, unable to communicate with anyone. Train does befriend Plural, another caddy who slowly goes blind as a punching bag for young white boxers, but he can do little else except watch as Plural is pummeled into oblivion.

Train's native competence draws people to him; once the white man gets close, Train knows he wants something from him, and so must give in. What does whitey want? To humiliate Train, to regard (maybe use) his sexuality, to weasel inside and get to him. You'd think a white woman's putative hunger for a black man would be the vehicle. But Dexter's tack is not sex, it's power—power in the hands of an Orange County detective, Miller Packard, whom Train calls the "mile away man."

Train thinks the brooding Packard is a mystery, but the detective's behavior says otherwise. Packard's a loutish cop who's all action, fist, gun and cover-up. He writes the rules for police procedure as he goes, "L.A. Confidential"-style, especially when black men challenge white privilege. Packard's character gains interest because of his self-possession; he moves toward mayhem, relishing the messiness of murder.

Packard is paired with the helpless Norah, the young wife of an older rich man; she is raped one night in a boat hijacking that ends in multiple deaths. The rape and the killings unite Packard and Norah for the novel's 9 Weeks-style ride. On the heels of her sexual assault, the two have more sex than mayflies; they are turned on most often by violence they've just escaped or Packard has initiated. Just as Train is drawn to Packard, so, too, is Norah. But their loyalty goes nowhere: Train's talents are wasted; Norah's trust is shattered a second time.

Perhaps the most memorable scenes in Dexter's novel are set early on, in the black caddy clubhouse where back-stabbing, literal and figurative, ensure a kind of security and decorum. But no sooner does Dexter set up a system of expectation than he destroys it with cartoonish disorder—a blind man beheads a flamingo, a fat man drops dead while putting, a detective's hand is impaled on the letter spindle on his desk. The action pitches from disarray to more disarray, from haughty Beverly Hills to combustible Darktown. In such a roil, it seems almost secondary that white interests and black dependency underlie the constant disruption.

When Packard shows interest in Train's prowess as a golfer, Train is easily won over. The detective barnstorms him to out-of-town games, betting on Train against hotshot white golfers. The novel picks up speed, only to have Packard grow tired of Train and dump him. C'est la vie.

Similarly, other escapades feel capricious. One involves Packard and Norah, who, in the space of an Elmore-Leonard-style chapter, fly off the road and wreck their car, are picked up by two crazies, shoot one of them to escape, then laugh over dinner about the day's diversion. I'm not sure what to do with such passages: They may be slick fun or morally repugnant or stylized bravado, but these scenes strike me as designed to entrap individuals in fatalistic incidents rather than to give characters the means to discover themselves.

In an early 1990s interview, Dexter said that "violence is a great shaping thing. It shapes what follows for everybody. Not just as a literary device, but in real life. The thing about violence is that it doesn't build to a crescendo the way it does in the movies. It doesn't work in a linear or a logical way. It's unpredictable."

As much as Dexter believes in the arbitrary, he must still stage the violence. After all, he, not fate, places shotguns on mantels; he, not God, seeds retribution in whites for the "sins" of black men. The worst or best part (depending on your taste for gore) is that you can see the knife, the fist, the gun coming before it arrives. You see it coming because it comes so often. You see it coming because once it is pushed out of its hiding place, Dexter enlarges the moment with face-ripping, body-bursting details. Violence may be unexpected, but it still feels like the author has pasted a bull's-eye to the backside of every black man in the story.

In Dexter's dystopia, survival has no grounding in option or logic, no safety in being inside or outside the system, no recourse to law or deity or conscience. We have in Train a man whose adequacy and hope often rise in the story, but he can never fly because Dexter melts his wings. Not only does Train keep falling, but he seems never to realize that he is powerless. In the end we regard him—and the will to survive—as he regards himself: with absurdity. We've been trained, as it were, to feel that societies exist only to corrupt us, and that human folly produces nothing but self-loathing.

Excerpt from Train:

Train picked up the nine iron and waited for the fat man to start down the fairway. Waited the way a Mexican would for the problem to go away. There were days he wished he could be Mexican himself -- give up toting the bags and just work on the ground crew for History, come out early and rake the traps or weed the flowers. He could always make things grow. But the Mexicans was all illegal, and the club hired them by the day, first come, first serve, and didn't pay them but a dollar for ten hours, and even then Train sometimes saw them fighting in the morning over a place in line. Train guessed it was better work than picking fruit, and guessed they would caddy if the club would let them.

Carrying the bags, Train got a dollar and a half for eighteen holes, plus whatever the tote gave him at the end. Sometimes in the summer when the sun set at eight-thirty or nine, he made twelve, fourteen dollars. He liked to lie in bed at home at the end of those days and take an ink pen and color George Washington's eyes. Color them blue. He gave half the money to his mother, rolled the other half up in a sock and put it in his drawer with the other socks, didn't look any different from them. Then there was two socks, and then there was three. He always knew exactly how much was in the socks, and sometimes at night he pulled one on his foot, just to see how it felt to push his toes in there with all those dollar bills.