Clyde Edgerton remains one of North Carolina's most vibrant literary voices. He was born and raised in the Durham area and attended UNC-Chapel Hill. Today, he lives in Wilmington and teaches at UNC Wilmington. Small town North Carolina often serves as the setting for his novels.
The Night Train is Edgerton's 10th work of fiction and his first in three years. It is also the second of his novels that focuses primarily on music and its connection to the South. The novel is short, barely over 200 pages, but it brevity works to great effect as it effectively captures a moment in time.
Set in the fictional small town of Starke, NC in 1963, The Night Train spends a good part of the book introducing the reader to the small town environment. Like most small southern towns during that time, Starke is a segregated town, divided in half by a railroad track. Blacks and whites work together during the day, but each group returns home to a different side of town with different challenges, economics, and dreams. This passage from the book sums the situation up beautifully:
[S]ince about the same percentage of people called themselves Christian on both sides of the track, we could say that the railroad track divided a single Christian community. But something begins to break down there, doesn't it? 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 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 -- a guilt that if moving deep in a lake, would leave the surface flat calm.
The book uses this cultural juxtapositioning to follow the parallel musical journeys of two young friends, the white Dwayne Hallston and the black Larry Lime. Both are drawn to the black music of the day.
Dwayne is mesmerized by R&B sounds, particulary James Brown, and forms a band to perform this music at a time when "respectable white folks" played country music. Larry Lime connects to R&B music as well, but he finds himself drawn to jazz and its intellectual underpinnnings. Larry discovers a local musician nicknamed "The Bleeder" who tutors him. Larry also serves as a tutor of sorts for Dwayne in his quest for his band to learn, note for note, James Brown's Live At The Apollo.
Weave in a local town boss who owns just about everything, a local TV talent show aired on the station owned by the local boss, some teenage summer romance and shenanigans, and there lies the recipe of what serves to be a wonderfully comical and uplifting ending. The brevity of the novel works because it captures a moment of change. It's really all about how change - sea change - can happen in a moment without anyone fully realizing it. Old ideas die while new ideas emerge.
The Night Train also deserves credit for focusing on the music of this era. The seeds planted by this earliest musical era would later lead to the apex of Southern Soul of the mid to late 60s as well as the Southern Rock era and the funk/jazz era that would define the late 60s and early 70s. These musical movements were driven by Southern musicians, both black and white.
Social change can come slowly, but the spark the leads to change often happens in an instant, especially when looked at retrospectively. Kudos to Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train for showing how one small moment can create cultural ripples of change throughout a society.
- Jim Markel
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