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.