Pete Dexter's 'Train': snakes in the water hazard

October 05, 2003|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,Sun Staff

Train, by Pete Dexter. Doubleday. 257 pages. $24.95.

Like an exquisitely wrought Waterford crystal goblet packed in Styrofoam, there is a marvelous gift tucked inside Train, Pete Dexter's latest disturbing examination of the dark side of the American experience: a self-contained story of a high-stakes golf match in early 1950s Los Angeles that exhibits all of Dexter's considerable gifts as a novelist and revisits themes familiar from his earlier works, notably Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award.

Race, violence (implicit here, explicit elsewhere in the novel), honor and deceit are all examined in Dexter's laconic style as Lionel "Train" Walk, an 18-year-old caddy, suddenly has a nine iron thrust into his hand by a member of a gambling foursome and is told to play a dramatic shot with thousands of dollars riding on the outcome. With aplomb, he puts the ball within a few feet of the pin.

At this stage, the novel is naturalistic, and Train seems to be a fictional version of the legendary Bill Spiller, the brilliant black golfer of the same era who was barred from most PGA events because of his race, and was forced to earn his living caddying and hustling at Southern California clubs.

But then the novel veers in several directions, with a notable lack of success. The golfer who profits from Train's remarkable shot turns out to be an Orange County police detective by way of Philadelphia who is impossibly violent and oversexed, yet so enigmatic that Train correctly dubs him the "Mile Away Man." The detective (and Dexter), all too predictably, plunge into the dark hole of the L.A. noir, right up to the shattering conclusion.

Less predictably, but no less satisfyingly, Train embarks on a picaresque journey that takes him to a golf course that might have been designed by Salvador Dali. There are snapping turtles and snakes in the water hazards, and even more dangerous fauna lurking about. A menacing midget. A blind boxer who punches anyone who ventures within reach of his jab and who, as a sideline, strangles birds.Groundskeepers who hack each other to death with knives while an aspiring artiste snaps their pictures, later to exhibit them to critical acclaim.

Finally, a subterranean fire licks away at the roots of the trees lining the course, causing smoke to belch from fissures in the fairways.

Undoubtedly, these goings-on will entrance a lit crit class searching for symbolism.

There are still many pleasures scattered about. Few novelists can convey as much in a phrase, as when he describes one villain having "eyes like a strangling." And then there is Dexter's mordant humor (though not enough of it).

In a scene recalling his earlier novel, God's Pocket, he describes how the detective in earlier days kept in shape as a runner. He would walk into a taproom in a neighborhood where he didn't belong, "and insult one of the locals. The easiest way to insult one was to use a word he didn't understand. Avuncular, bulbous, crescendo. Say the word avuncular and the next thing you know, 15 of them had bats and were chasing you down the street."

But ultimately, this reader feels much like Dexter's detective, who, at the end, wonders how things got so out of control.

Mike Leary is the national editor of The Sun and a former books editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he also was European correspondent. He has lived in Germany and England.

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