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Train by Pete Dexter


Rating: (Highly Recommended)


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Every word Pete Dexter chose in his new novel, Train, fits. No extra words, nothing missing. His sparse style forces a reader to stay glued to every page, and receive pleasure with each page turn. Protagonist Lionel Walk’s nickname gives the book its title. A caddie, he meets Miller Packard, on the course, and the pain of their lives dominate the book. Dexter is a master at pain, as he’s shown in his earlier novels. Love and loss, racism, physical abuse, murder, are all parts of the pain in Train. It’s raw, efficient and real. In the hands of a great writer, it’s a pleasure to experience. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2 (pp. 9-13):


Los Angeles, March 1953


The fat man couldn’t turn it loose. Got the sun in the sky, birds in the trees, shine on his    shoes—everything a gentleman need but two wives and a death wish, as the old saying went—but he still just stood there froze over the ball, the seconds ticking away, like somebody couldn't pee for the nurse.

And yellowow pants, speaking of urination.

The boy was a few steps behind the fat man and to the side, carrying his bag. He'd been standing by watching half the morning, and there was something about the fat man he still couldn't place. Something familiar that reminded him of something else. The boy waited for the connection to come, not trying to hurry it along. Connections came to him all the time—people to things and things to people, things to each other, surprises and amusedments out of the thin air—it wasn't anything he did to cause it, and sometimes, like now, he knew one was there before he knew what it was.

And sometimes, of course, it turned out to be a surprise but not no amusedment at all.

The boy was almost eighteen years old, but innocent-looking for that age, still hadn't grown into his feet, and when he spoke, it was soft and mumbled, where you could barely tell what he said. He was known around these environs as Train.

The fat man's weight hung over his belt in bags in front and over the sides, and his thighs moved around under those big loose pants—it look like children hiding in the curtains. He took a long breath and then went still, with eyes like a strangling.

This same thing been going on long enough now that it lost its comical aspect. Then a ripple passed across his face, like a fish swam up to the surface, and they all saw it and knew it was time to shut up and hold still, and for a little while nobody moved, nobody dare to move, because any little perturbation now, any flutterance in the air, and they got to all go back and start over from the beginning. The breeze itself stopped blowing.

The boy held his breath, and held the bag—his hand went over the irons to keep them quiet—and then the fat man sighed, like the news on this shot was already in, feeling that old, familiar misery stalking him again, and picked the club almost straight up off the ground.

Which was a relief to all concerned.

Once the swing was safely begun, Train went squint-eyed, as he sometimes did to diversify himself when things was slow, and watched the whole scene transmogrified around to Little Bighorn, Montana. (The boy picked up that word off a tote, a retired justice of the peace from someplace down south, who found it himself in the Reader's Digest's "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power," and ever since, every time he hit it into the water or out into the yards and houses and streets beyond the course, he turned to his playing partners and said, "Gentlemen, you have witnessed an officer of the court transmogrified to human shit," and that was surefire material for the regular associates of his, no matter how many times they heard it before.)

The fat man lifted the club higher, pulling himself up with it, and Train saw Custer, all wore-out, fighting to the end in his yellow pants, standing his ground and swinging at the redskins with an empty rifle as they floated past on their war ponies. The last white man alive.

There was a thought.

And then, just like the movie, here come the tomahawk, cutting down through the sky, death on a stick, and then a wet, heavy noise when it hit home. And then Custer was gone as fast as he come, and the club head had took a divot half a foot deep, and the ball itself squirted almost straight right, off the cart path toward the trees.

Time slowed down and everybody went numb-mouth at once.

The ball ran like a jail break, and the boy knew to a certainty that even though it was only a twosome, this round was surely three hours a side, and there wasn't no chance in hell he was finishing in time to carry two bags today. They gone out late in the first place—didn't get on the first tee till 10:22—and as soon as the fat man had hit it once, Train realized that his wet dreams was better organized than his tote's golf swing.

He looked back up the fairway now to keep the fat man from seeing what he was thinking. Not that he would necessarily know exactly what it was, but they were all quick to notice cheek in their caddies.

The fat man, though, was still staring at the spot where the ball gone into die trees, like he was offering it one last chance to give itself up and come out, and then without any warning he wheeled around and sent the club in there too, a sound vomiting up out of him that wasn't in any Reader's Digest, or any dictionary, that didn't have letters to spell it, a sound as old as the ancient game of golf itself. He grunted with the effort and the shaft winked in the sun as it crossed the morning sky.


"They must of left the sprinklers on all night," the fat man said after he got back in control of his deportment again. He lifted his shirt to look at the line of mud that had splashed up, and Train saw a patch of wild red hair on the banging underside of his belly, and the skin beneath it was faintly blue with veins. "It's getting worst than the public courses," he said, "the way History keeps this thing." And then, glancing at his stomach, as if something there reminded him of it, he said, "Maybe he got his pecker stuck in Helen Sears' storm drain last night. . . ."

The man he was playing with started to laugh at that, got about halfway home. He didn't make no laughing sound, just the motion, and it was hard to tell what he was thinking. He was a guest, though, not a member, so he didn't know who Helen Sears was, didn't know nothing about the situation. Just walked around so far looking like something out here might amused him. What it was, Train couldn't say. The name tag on his golf bag was from Hillcrest, said Mr. Miller Packard, but Train named him “the Mile Away Man” on the first tee, on account it seemed like in all that amusedment, the man was someplace else half the time, like not everything was getting through. It was an old habit, naming his totes; there was five or six he called "the Living Dead." Not out loud, of course, only to himself, behind his expressionless face.

Train, whose name was Lionel Walk, Jr., kept to himself and always had. The other caddies laughed at their totes back in the shed, imitated what they said and how they limped, but then they picked up the bag and it was "Yessir" and "No sir" and "Thank you, sir," all the way around. The boy did not have the looseness for that, but expected that someday he would. From what he seen, the world conducted its business by who was there when you was talking.

Even the members themself watched what they said, he noticed, at least around each other. Or until they started to playing bad. Around the working people, of course, they didn't care. For instance, they been calling the greens superintendent "History" all year, sometimes right to his face. As in "He's history." Not that it bothered the superintendent any. He started calling himself that lately, in fact, seemed pleased with the idea he had them wanting to fire him.

It was the custom at Brookline when you got mad enough to throw your sticks, the first thing you did when you come back to your senses was to blame it on History, but these days it was more connected to his romance with Helen Sears than his habit of sitting around on his ass all day reading books while the course went to hell. She was even driving him to work now. Bud Sears was dead since Halloween, but that wasn't the point. The point—at least the way History explained it—was that you die and then the greenskeeper just walks in the front door and heads to the liquor cabinet, probably wearing your shoes. It was everything wrong with being old and rich, the core of the apple: scavengers was everywhere.

It tickled History to death.

Sometimes in the morning when there was extra work out on the course, History called down to the caddy shed for Train and paid him three dollars for the day to run the mowers or fill divots or punch the greens or whatever it was had to be done. He used Train because he was strong—stronger than the rest of the grounds crew could believe, looking at him—and a fast learner, and never complained that he had too much to do. When Train was finished, History was usually back in the storage barn, sitting around on his ass drinking a martini and reading The Great Gatsby. He'd been inside that same book ever since he started up with Helen Sears, seemed like he couldn't get enough of the story. Sometimes he read parts of it out loud. He kept gin, vermouth, and a bottle of olives on the same shelf with the motor oil, and one afternoon he showed Train how to make a dry martini, and told him that anything further he needed to know about the country club set he would find in the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dexter’s books are few and far between, so enjoy Train soon, and spend some years waiting for another masterful novel.

Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times

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