The Night Train is a One Way Ticket for a Southern White Boy

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.

Not much happens in small towns; the sun rises and sets, motorists zip past without a thought, and the locals gather at the lone gas station to try to be the first to guess the make and model of the cars flashing past. It’s an almost ritualistic monotony repeated in a thousand towns across the country, and which Clyde Edgerton chronicles in his new novel, The Night Train ($23.99, Little, Brown and Company). Starke, North Carolina, could be any of those towns, except it’s in the South as the Civil Rights Movement is gaining momentum, an element that promises a modern day tragedy.


The status quo reigns in Starke, with white on one side of town and black on the other and the ubiquitous railroad tracks separating the two. In Prestonville, “seven miles to the south . . . a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan meet monthly,” as good Klansmen will. It’s the way things are supposed to be. Starke is home to “Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe on Me Nolan,” or Larry Lime for short. Larry recognizes that the “Devil was all in among colored and white, but . . . that the Devil might be afraid of some white people.”

Larry is careful not to cross the racial boundaries, but he befriends Dwayne, the white son of the owner of the furniture refinishing shop where he works. Larry takes him noodling, a crazy form of fishing where you stick your hand in an underwater hole and pull out whatever is in there. They shoot hoops together, although Larry knows they shouldn’t, and Dwayne’s father tells him to stop because it “just don’t look right.


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