Clyde Edgerton's homey, honeyed southern voice, introduced in the mid-eighties in his first two novels, Raney and Walking Across Egypt, delights, disarms and charms. In book after book since, including his last novel, The Bible Salesman (2008), he has captured the foibles of his fellow North Carolinians with an uncommon warmth and wit that often evokes Mark Twain. The Night Train, Edgerton's tenth novel, is one of those deceptively slight books that slyly tackles a heavyweight subject — racism and the breakdown of racial barriers — and pins it to the mat, seemingly effortlessly.
Set in rural North Carolina in 1963, The Night Train centers on a frowned-upon friendship which blossoms between two teens from opposite sides of the color divide and tracks. Larry Lime Nolan and Dwayne Hallston connect over their shared passion for jazz. At 16, Larry dreams of playing the piano like Thelonious Monk, and finds a mentor in a talented hemophiliac jazz musician called the Bleeder. Larry's mother hopes that music will be his ticket out of the segregated South. Dwayne, with whom Larry works in Mr. Hallston's furniture refinishing shop, is as enamored of James Brown, whose sound he finds "dirty and powerful and clean," as Larry is of Monk.
The boys' bigoted foreman, Flash Acres, disapproves of their music and camaraderie. Fortunately, he's distracted by the needs of his stroke-stricken mother. Blacks don't want to work for this mean KKK widow any more than she wants them — but she no longer has a choice. "The world is changing so fast. You used to could predict things. But not anymore, especially with a Catholic president," she says pre-stroke. Ever since he created feisty 78-year-old Mattie Rigsbee in Walking Across Egypt, Edgerton has excelled at finding the endearing and humorous even in the indignities and crotchetiness of old age — particularly challenging with a character like Flash's Mama.
With helpful pointers from Larry, Dwayne and his band, the Amazing Rumblers, rehearse in the furniture shop's storage room, striving to emulate every note and move of Brown's Live at the Apollo album — which includes his iconic rendition of "Night Train." The Rumblers take their act to a local country music television show, which features a dog-food-eating host. The station is owned by Jared Fitzsimmons, who also owns the dog food factory that employs much of Larry's family; the white newspaper in Prestonville; and acres of local real estate. For Fitzsimmons, a group of white boys playing black music is as threatening as Martin Luther King's civil rights initiatives.
It's no surprise that Edgerton, an avid musician himself, has an ear. He transposes the riffs and dips of jazz onto the page, but he's even better with the cadences of local dialect. "I ain't gone mess with no white people," Larry says when Dwayne asks why he won't drop a rooster from the balcony of the white theater during a screening of The Birds. "This whole business of 'soul' music," the Bleeder says. "It's pitiful. Got white creeping in all over. Fluff. Soft-edge crap. That's why you learning jazz."
In often hilarious escapades — including Dwayne's attempt to sneak Larry into the all-white drive-in movie theater in the trunk of his car — Edgerton, like Twain, highlights the rub between narrow-minded, censorious adults and a joyous, risk-taking, boundary-smashing, distinctively American adventurousness.
In Clyde Edgerton's new novel, The Night Train, the main characters are friends, but no one knows it.
The two boys, Larry Lime Nolan and Dwayne Hallston, work side by side at Dwayne's father's furniture store. They both love the music that's taken hold of the country in 1963, the time the novel is set. But in their hometown of Starke, N.C., Dwayne, who is white, and Larry, who is black, have to keep their friendship concealed like some family embarrassment.
As Edgerton tells NPR's Scott Simon, the novel, his 10th over a long career, is informed by his own experience growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s.
"About that time, I was 19 and I joined a band," Edgerton says, just like the character Dwayne in the novel. "Also, I had a friend named Larry Lime — not exactly a friend but he was an acquaintance. I would see him at the store near my home."
In one scene in the book, Dwayne and Larry are playing basketball. Dwayne's father tells him that the two boys playing together "just don't look right." Edgerton says "that's a scene very much out of my life. My father did ask me, when I was playing basketball in my backyard, if I would ask Larry Lime to leave. And you know, it's funny how memory works — I can't remember exactly what happened after then, but it was interesting as a storyteller to be able to take that scene and re-create it and make something new out of it."
The characters in Edgerton's book bond over a love for music. Dwayne reveres James Brown and plays in a teen band called the Amazing Rumblers; Larry plays piano and aspires to be like Thelonious Monk. Larry hopes music will lead him out of the South. Music is important in the book because, Edgerton says, the late 1950s and early 1960s were "just an amazing time. ... Music was a large part of my life. And it is, again, a bit cliche, but it's a way people come together."
In the novel, Dwayne and Larry hatch a plan for Dwayne's Amazing Rumblers to reproduce James Brown's Live at the Apollo album note-for-note, step for step, with some instruction from Larry. The last track on that album is called "The Night Train."
"I had no idea what to call this novel and I ended up with The Night Train because of the song," Edgerton says. But after writing the book, Edgerton says, he thought about how to "deepen the meaning of the title a little bit." That led him to write into the book a train that runs through the fictional town of Starke. In the book, Dwayne and Larry live on opposite sides of the train track and both hear the night train pass through.
Edgerton did a lot of reflecting when writing the book. He discovered things as a novelist that he didn't realize growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s. "The whole question of segregation and race," he says, "and of course, when you're 12 [or] 14 in a culture in which segregation is the norm, you're in many ways like the cliched 'fish in the water.'"
"In revisiting this scene," Edgerton adds, "I was able to think about the invisible effects of segregation on one relationship."
One point of view Edgerton constructs is that of the villain, a bigoted man named Flash Acres. Although he seems to be a typical villain in the 1960's American South, Edgerton says, Flash's character is actually more complex.
"There's a part of me which rebels against the classic mean Southern racist, who is nothing more than that," Edgerton says. "And so I had a chance with Flash to round him out a bit."
Flash shows his humanity by caring for his elderly, infirmed mother. That, too, reflects Edgerton's real-life experience.
"I know very little if any shame in looking for what to write about, and my mother's illness, which happened around 1999 and 2000 — and she died in 2001 — was something I'd never translated into fiction. She wasn't at all like Flash's mother, to me anyway, but certainly it was one of the most memorable times of my life. So I had an opportunity to bring some of my experiences into a fictional context."
In addition to being a writer, Edgerton is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He thinks about his students' understanding of the historic events of 1963: the march on Washington, D.C., the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"In writing about that time, I had to go back and read a lot and I did realize as you just mention what a pivotal time that was. Now in my community in Wilmington," Edgerton says, "I go to second-grade classes and I watch black and white children play together as if there's no such thing as race. And then, of course, I watch them in high school and I think about kids who are teenagers and who are black and who are white and their chances at friendship and how it might be different than 1963."
"In some cases, I think it's not," he continues. "But you hope that young people will read history and realize what happened and why it happened and think about it and see how that might influence and affect their lives with their neighbors."