Book review: 'Night Train' offers glimpse of changing South

Special to the Packet and GazetteFebruary 5, 2012 

Clyde Edgerton has been called a Southern treasure. Through books such as "Raney," "Walking Across Egypt" and "The Bible Salesman," he has perfectly captured the voices and essential nature of the people -- both black and white -- who live here. "The Night Train" is not one of his major novels, but you'll be introduced to a rich assortment of characters you'll recognize -- and won't soon forget.

The first one we meet is Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe on Me Nolan -- his full name -- a 16-year-old black kid from a small North Carolina town who has an uncommon talent for music. He is taking lessons from the Bleeder, a hemophiliac who plays jazz piano in a little bar called Frog, and who recognizes talent when he sees it. Nolan gets his name from his grandma, Aunt Marzie, who gave names to everybody in the family. (Larry's cousin, whom he works for, is Young Prophet of Light and Material Witness to the Creation Trumpet Jones, but everybody calls him Uncle Young. His mother is Canary Bird in the Shopwindow of Love Jones Nolan.) Larry helps his cousin pick up trash and also does refinishing for Hallstrom's furniture store. The foreman at the furniture shop is Flash Acres, the son of a Klan member who has the prevailing attitude toward those not of his race.

Larry Lime's friend and co-worker is a white boy named Dwayne Halston, who plays and sings in a rock 'n' roll band called The Amazing Rumblers. Their goal is to get a tryout on a local TV show. Larry Lime has a rooster named Redbird that he has trained to dance, and the band wants to somehow include the dancing chicken in their act. He also has a plan to drop a live chicken off the balcony at the local movie theater during a showing of Hitchcock's "The Birds."

You get the idea. This is a novel of vaguely related happenings; it might not have any discernible plot but it is crammed with local color. The year is 1963, a time of sit-ins at lunch counters and rumors of disturbances by a black preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., and relations between races are touchy. But both races are united in their regard for a local TV show called "The Brother Bobby Lee Reese Country Music Jamboree." Bobby Lee and his sidekick Baby Mercy are hosts on the show, which runs at 10:30 Saturday nights and includes "good country music, clean humor and at least one gospel tune." Reese has become famous for his tall stories and his habit of eating dog food on the show, which is sponsored by a local dog food business. It is "Amateur Hour" on the show where Dwayne hopes his band will make its mark.

They finally get their chance, and they blow it. Larry Lime has taught Dwayne to dance like the singer James Brown, and when he suddenly cuts away from a gospel song and begins blaring out "Night Train" -- dancing like Brown "his head down, his feet moving fast" -- the black audience goes wild. "White boy gettin' down! He gettin' down!" The dog food manufacturer is not amused, and Bobby Lee is fired.

Before this raucous climax, a number of events take place -- a chicken is actually tossed out of the balcony, which turns into an unfortunate event for the chicken; Dwayne tries to sneak Larry Lime into a white movie and they wind up on the front page of the paper; Flash's bigoted mother has a stroke and is forced to turn to Larry Lime's mother for help. Throughout, there is wonderful dialog.

Not much seems to happen in this novel, but there are signs the old racial conflicts are beginning to change, as, of course, they have. At the end, Larry Lime takes his seat at Frog and realizes he was "a jazz musician--and would be the rest of his life."

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