Some of my fondest childhood memories were the trips we made to Dunn, North Carolina, to visit my mother’s family. I would sit in the kitchen of Grandma’s house or in front of her massive RCA color television in the back room, listening to my aunts and uncles reminisce about life growing up in a small tobacco town in the 1950s and 60s. There was a lot of laughter and the occasional heightened pitch of my mother or one of her sisters recounting a particularly juicy part of a story. Everyone on my mother’s side of my family was a good storyteller, so I guess I come by that honestly.
Reading The Night Train, Clyde Edgerton’s 2011 novel about a small town in the early 1960s, reminded me of Dunn and some of those raucous tales at Grandma’s house. Fictional Starke, North Carolina, is like countless other Southern hamlets before and after Segregation – railroad tracks splitting it into the white part and the black part of town, with little overlap between the two other than in the tobacco fields and at a few businesses. Despite the separation and the history, Edgerton notes, folks on both sides of the tracks seem to share more in common than they would care to admit:
We could accurately say that the railroad divided a community of cornbread, vegetable and chicken eaters; or a community of pet lovers; or a community of rural dialects; of families of men who hunted quail and rabbits; people who owned chickens; women who cooked and sewed; or people who had, in their lifetimes, “worked in tobacco” – picked it, carted it behind mule or tractor, tied it to sticks, hung it in barns to cure, took it to market, complained about suckering and sand lugging.
Sunday mornings, however, encapsulate just how far apart the two sides of town are:
The truths of their pasts gave each group a different God (one of deliverance, the other of dominion), a different mode of worship service (one with energy and joy trumping solemnity and fear, the other almost reversing that). And their histories brought hardships to the people of West Starke not understood by the people of East Starke, and guilt to the East not understood by anybody.
Somehow, despite their upbringings and social pressures of their town, two teen-aged boys – one black and one white – slowly become friends. As with a lot of kids suddenly old enough to form their own tastes, it is music that brings them together. Dwayne Hallston has discovered James Brown and instructs his all-white band to memorize every song on the Live at the Apollo album. Larry Lime paces Dwayne through James Brown’s dance moves, but Larry Lime’s real passion is piano jazz, which he’s learning from a hemophiliac musician called the Bleeder who plays a club on the outskirts of town.
Both Larry Lime and Dwayne love The Bobby Lee Reese Show, a local TV variety show featuring the latest country and rock acts every Saturday night, hosted by a transplanted Yankee with a strange knack for connecting with both white and black audiences. Dwayne wants to audition on Bobby Lee’s show, and what could possibly go wrong with white boys playing soul music on TV at a time when the South is about to erupt over Civil Rights?
At little more than 200 pages, The Night Train is a fast-moving, often hilarious trip along both sides of the railroad tracks in tiny Starke. Edgerton’s skill at developing characters is such that even the most vilely racist ones come off as strangely sympathetic. They’re not bad people, they are just products of a tightly wound caste system that still exists in pockets of small towns and big cities all across the country.
You know from the very beginning of the book that the blooming friendship between Larry Lime and Dwayne is bound to be tested. Along the way, however, there are wonderful boyhood adventures and vivid characters of all ages. And, as with all of Edgerton’s books, there’s some great storytelling. You can almost taste the fried chicken, green beans and buttered biscuits on Grandma’s kitchen table, no matter what part of town you’re from.