Clyde Edgerton is as much an anthropologist as he is a novelist, and his specialty is rural North Carolina of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Future historians can study Edgerton’s body of work for what he does best: capturing that elusive sense of place and people in the context of a 20th-century era.
In “The Night Train,” Edgerton’s 10th novel, the place is Starke, N.C., the time is 1963, and the people are (mostly) teenagers, black and white, who love music. Larry Lime, a 16-year-old African American, is taken under the wing of a musician known as The Bleeder (he’s a hemophiliac), from whom he learns how to play jazz piano and is introduced to the world of soul. Dwayne Hallston, Larry’s white friend, plays guitar and is hoping he’ll get to perform with his rhythm-and-blues band on a local TV show, “The Brother Bobby Lee Reese Country Music Jamboree,” which has figured out how to attract white and black viewers.
The main thrust of this novel is how music can transform lives and, in the case of Larry Lime, might even provide an escape from the dangers of the KKK. Larry’s mother, upon hearing of the piano lessons, thinks hopefully, “Jazz might get him outen the South.” Throw into this mix a dancing chicken, a family with names like Canary Bird in the Shopwindow of Love Jones Nolan, and a newspaper article in which a wife accuses her husband of having sex with 11 hens, and you have quintessential Edgerton: quirky, homespun and very Southern.
Edgerton’s genius, however, is his ability to capture the nuances of small-town life, whether it’s a prank two boys are hatching involving local showings of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or the business dealings of a dog food magnate. By novel’s end, you know Starke, N.C., as well as you know your own home town. Edgerton is also adept at capturing 1963. “The Night Train” is a time-capsule containing the Greensboro sit-ins, “The Rifleman” TV show and the church bombings in Alabama.
While I’m sure many readers enjoy the way Edgerton’s novels veer off course, the main story becomes more diffuse and unfocused with each digression. Like Charles Dickens, Edgerton is a comic novelist of serious subjects who floats from character to character, but Dickens wrote 1,000-page novels and could afford to go astray without losing his focus. Edgerton writes slim books: “The Night Train” weighs in at just over 200 pages with wide margins. Halfway through the novel, I had forgotten whom I was rooting for. We skim the surfaces of the novel’s main characters rather than plumbing their depths. And this is a shame, because Larry Lime is established early on as a sympathetic young man with real stakes. The entire novel could easily have belonged to him or been split between him and his clandestine friend Dwayne Hallston, and it would have been a much more forceful book.
Even so, “The Night Train” is an enjoyable, if light, romp. Yes, it’s a story about race relations in the South in the early ’60s, but that’s just the book’s subtext. I kept walking to my old record collection and pulling out albums I hadn’t listened to in decades. Long after you shut this novel, what lingers is the transformative power of music.
McNally’s most recent books are “After the Workshop: A Novel” and “The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist.” He lives in North Carolina.
THE NIGHT TRAIN
By Clyde Edgerton
Little, Brown. 215 pp. $23.99