Book review: ‘The Night Train’

From a few years back but one of my favorites when I reread it today. A North Carolina author.

‘The Night Train’; by Clyde Edgerton; Little Brown; 211 pages; $23.99.

Think of the literary work of author Clyde as a pone of cornbread. Each book he’s written represents a small slice of the North Carolina life he knows so well. Every butter-layered piece tells a small but filling tale ready for quick and delightful consumption.

It’s rich storytelling, which is perhaps why each piece is so small. The simply offered bites unveil a range of issues that readers can chew upon. Via Edgerton readers have explored piety vs. moral ambiguity; tradition vs. prosperity; or the idea of absolute right balanced against unspeakable wrong. In Edgerton’s world, more than one idea is always in play.

The matters of race relations and hope are where Edgerton rests in his latest novel, “The Night Train,” a worthy follow to “The Bible Salesman,” “Lunch at the Piccadilly,” “Raney,” and perhaps his most well known book, “Walking Across Egypt.” Each entry in the Edgerton catalog tells the larger story of a southern — and North Carolina — way of life that no longer exists in a world taken over by easy transportation, mass communications, chain retailers and fast food restaurants.

His tales are those of country folks who lead uncomplicated lives but who still manage to find themselves in complex moral situations. How they reason and emerge from it all provides the humor for which Edgerton is so well known.

But while Edgerton writes of a South Irretrievably lost, it’s one Tar Heels still know well. It’s a South that is recalled with longing and regret; with love and guilt. It’s a time when people stayed close to home, watched TV together and ate from the garden, usually at the same time every day — but one complicated by church allegiances, Christian confusion and longtime albeit unexplainable biases.

That’s the fine line Edgerton, who now lives in Wilmington, always walks. It takes tremendous skill to do so without bombast, bluster or preachery. Edgerton, as always, refrains from all three. Instead, he conjures a slowly boiling story that will catch readers by surprise page after page.

“The Night Train” is set in fictional Starke, North Carolina. The year is 1963. Two teenagers — one black, one white — are just starting to understand how they fit into the world and what if anything, the future might hold. They understand the racial divide common in the early 1960s South, enforced by their parents and friends. The rules and boundaries are clear.

Acceptance is another question.

As the rise in prominence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King plays quietly in the background, music by James Brown and Thelonious Monk dominates the foreground.

Brown’s landmark “Live at the Apollo” album is the ironic heart of Edgerton’s coming-of-age story. The piano wizardry of Monk, a jazz legend, provides the soul. Taken together, these two iconic American artists create the notion of music as a unifying force and source of belief that better times are ahead. Brown, of South Carolina and Monk, of North Carolina, had to leave the rural South in order to find fame and acceptance at clubs and venues in New York and other metropolitan areas.

A recognizable but not stereotypical cast is constructed around the music. Edgerton doesn’t so much create vivid characters but instead offers familiar vessels that do the work of advancing the narrative. While no single figure in “The Night Train” is sharply drawn, southern readers will know every single one.

At 210 pages, “The Night Train” is a quick read but a wholly satisfying one. And more than a few readers might want to go back for seconds.


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