In Pete Dexter’s novels, a man can stare ”like he was draining the lake to see what was on the bottom”; the game of golf is ”as cruel as a clubfoot”; and a young man notices that a ”girl had a bottom that just made you want to eat her skirt.” All these tersely vivid images are in Train, the latest from Dexter, a veteran newspaperman with a small stack of assiduously low-key but powerful novels to his credit, including the 1988 National Book Award-winner ”Paris Trout.” In ”Train,” set in 1950s Los Angeles, the man with the stare is Miller Packard, a middle-aged white cop who befriends the aforementioned appreciator of young women, Lionel Walk, a teenage black caddie at a tony L.A. golf course. These two men, separated by race, class, and age, form an uneasy but convincing friendship that eventually leads, as so many alliances do in Dexter’s fiction, to violence and disaster.
Packard meets Lionel, nicknamed Train, one day when he’s golfing. Much of the novel is told in Train’s voice, and he immediately thinks of Packard as the Mile Away Man, ”on account it seemed…the man was someplace else half the time, like not everything was getting through.” Train’s Mile Away Man soon takes on a grisly case: A man is murdered and his wife is mutilated and raped by the killers. During his investigation, Packard is drawn to the widowed victim, Norah Rose, for her beauty and vulnerability. At the same time, he is increasingly intrigued by Train, for his somber intelligence and skill as a golfer.
When Packard finds one of the two men responsible for the crimes, he is so overcome with repellence and rage that he kills the man, an act that sets ”Train” on a path to tragedy. In Packard, Dexter has created a flawed tough-guy hero, ”the kind of man who would hurt you” — yet one who transcends the hard-boiled-thriller model with his uncommon sensitivity to others’ emotions and a self-awareness that his romantic idealism will probably lead to his own ruin. More broadly, the author also evokes an era in which black people tested the limits of segregation and subjugation. In a later time, it is clear, Train would be Tiger Woods. As it is, the ill-educated, impoverished Train, with Packard’s accompaniment and sponsorship, travels around the country playing golf, winning undreamt-of money in high-stakes betting games from white men startled out of complacency by Train’s skill.
Dexter depicts much of this in energetic scenes graced with warm comic moments. But he also never lets us forget the initial crime, and Mile Away Man’s reaction to it haunts this book, filling you with dread. ”Train” builds to an unexpected, appalling, yet inevitable climax. ”You know it’s a hungry world,” remarks one character before unleashing more violence. Dexter makes it clear that this hungry world we inhabit is insatiable and dangerous, yet capable of moments of immense satisfaction and love.