Are you ready for the night train?
–”Night Train,” James Brown
Clyde Edgerton’s charming, humorous novel, The Night Train, inspired by James Brown, Civil Rights, and friendship, is a small, deceptively simple novel. If you missed it last year, and you missed it if you blinked, you should check out this Southern rock-and-roll classic.
Of course it’s not just rock: it’s also jazz, blues, and a bit of country. Set in 1963 in the small town of Starke, North Carolina, The Night Train is the story of a music-based interracial friendship between two boys who work in a furniture-refinishing shop. Larry Lime, the son of an unemployed father and a mother who works in a dog food factory, is black and a brilliant aspiring jazz pianist, while Dwayne, the son of the owner of the shop, is white, very liberal, and the leader of a small band.
Where they come together is music. When Larry Lime, who takes piano lessons from a well-known hemophiliac local jazz musician called the Bleeder, plays a riff from James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album for Dwayne, Dwayne “realized he was experiencing a knowledge he didn’t have.”
Live at the Apollo?
The new James Brown album. That riff stuck in between some of the songs. It’s called ‘Hold It.’ ‘Cept nobody but the Bleeder knows that. He likes James Brown, can play that stuff. It don’t say ‘Hold It’ on the album. See, like this. You play this: do-do do-do do-do. And then the chord: dat dat-dat dat. Real fast. See? Listen. And as he played it, Larry Lime glanced at Dwayne, saw that he was caught up in it.
In their secret friendship in a town divided by race, Larry Lime is very much the leader. Middle-class Dwayne is fascinated by Larry Lime’s trained dancing chicken–he did it with “behavioral psychology”–and his plan to drop a rooster from the balcony during Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when it plays in the colored theater. Larry Lime also takes Dwayne noodling: fishing with their hands for catfish in hollow logs. But Larry Lime is barred from some of the places Dwayne can go.
Both boys enjoy The Bobby Lee Reese Show, a local music show rather like American Bandstand or Shindig, only with hipper parodic humor. To help prepare Dwayne for his band’s audition for the show, Larry Lime not only teaches him to listen to and sing James Brown, but to do Brown’s signature dance step.
Although Larry Lime knows all about Martin Luther King and the sit-ins, he and his family don’t participate. They don’t have time, he tells Dwayne.
The narrative is much more complicated than it seems. Part of the novel is in the form of a 2011 interview with Bobby Lee Reese, who not only introduced music on his show, but ate dog food and told stories about an imaginary family. The interviewer is the former piano player of Dwayne’s band, Ray Wheeler, whom Dwayne had rather guiltily considered replacing with Larry Lime if he ever resigned. Here Bobby Lee Reese tells Ray Wheeler about writing for the show.
BOBBY LEE REESE: …We’d sit in my little house over there on Maycross Road, about a mile north of the Frog, this place where you could hear good jazz. A guy, a black guy called the Bleeder, played there some. Baby Mercy…[and I] would sit in the living room on my sofa and I’d write down ideas for stories to tell on the show. She came from a sure-enough backwoods family in East Tennessee, seven brothers and sisters, and she loved to bake pies.
Then there’s the thread about Flash Acres, the manager of the furniture-refinishing shop, and his mama, who has a stroke. His mama doesn’t want black help for nursing. She doesn’t even want Aunt Marzie, Larry Lime’s grandmother, one of the most influential women in the black community. And, truly, she has alienated most of the black women with her prejudice.
Edgerton shows us the similarity of the lives of both the black and white communities of Starke:
People from both sides of the track in Starke ate about the same amount–per capita–of corn bread, chicken, vegetables, pork, pies, cakes, stews. More chitterlings on the west side. About even on chicken necks, per capita.”
This just seems so funny, and so true.
I think The Night Train is a kind of classic. It’s nothing like Jennifer Egan’s The Goon Squad or Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, so don’t expect that. It’s not about drugs, sex, and rock and roll: it’s about a Southern small town where music is the commonality. And, believe me, these musicians work hard.