There was no ambiguity in the South in the 1960s. White was white and black was black and the two were never supposed to mix. Violence played out on black and white TV screens across the country, and there was talk in Starke that “they’d burn down the church, bomb homes like they were doing in other places” if “Dr. King came to Hanson County.” But for all the talk, the violence never threatens to make it to Starke. Edgerton makes an almost blatant attempt to distinguish the differences and create tension between the communities, but at the same time he reveals the similarities that dilutes the tension to the point of nonexistence.
Naming a town Starke, as in the starkness between black and white with railroad tracks as the line in the sand, seems almost too obvious a ploy to dismiss. At the same time, food is a common denominator where “people on both sides of the track in Starke ate about the same amount . . . of cornbread, chicken, vegetables, pork, pies, stews. . . We could accurately say that the railroad divided a community of corn bread, vegetable, and chicken eaters . . .” There is ultimately little difference or tension between the two communities. It is an element that is sorely missed, and the story never picks up steam as a result.
Larry and Dwayne have girls and music in common; they are both aspiring musicians, and Larry introduces Dwayne to the album Live at the Apollo. Dwayne fancies himself the white James Brown, and he drives his band, the Amazing Rumblers, to learn the album verbatim from beginning to end. It’s the devil’s music though, and it’s sure to be the end of any white boy. The Rumblers win a spot on a musical variety show, but instead of playing a Hank Williams song, they play “The Night Train.” As Dwayne’s father would say, that just don’t look right. He would probably say it don’t sound right either, but everyone knows he would be wrong on that point.
This is a relatively slim novel at just over 200 pages, and the story is a reflection of that. Just as nothing much happens in Starke, not much happens between the pages. Even when something happens, not much happens. Edgerton’s prose is similarly sparse with no wasted words in dialog or narrative. A feeble attempt to place the events within a context via present day flashbacks are little more than the author inexplicably falling into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing.”
Set during a turbulent decade that continues to hold our attention, it’s disappointing that The Night Train never leaves the station. Edgerton has quietly built an oeuvre that rivals any living American author, but his latest offering is little more than a rambling tale of meaningless events in a small town. The promise of tragedy never materializes. The Greeks invented tragedy, and Aristotle was the authority. He defined tragedy as having a catharsis and denouement as in the death of a hero and the final resolution of some conundrum (i.e. Hank Williams vs James Brown). Neither of those elements exist in The Night Train. There’s not even a hero, just a couple of small town boys doing what boys will do.