Slow-moving 'Train' is strong in characters and atmosphere

One of the main characters in Pete Dexter's new novel "Train" earns the nickname the "Mile-Away Man."

It's a moniker that could describe the entire book.

Dexter's writing style allows this book to unfold slowly. The characters reveal themselves through clipped dialogue and sudden action, and the plot, such as it is, moves along like a lethargic animal.

That is not a criticism, however, for the novel itself is anything but sleepy. Indeed, while the plot can seem to meander -- with different story lines and slight changes in the narrative style -- there is always a sense of an undercurrent to Dexter's prose. It is a book rich in atmosphere, exuding the menace of a man who is slowly rising to anger.

The title character, Lionel Walk, is a young black caddie at an exclusive country club in Los Angeles during the 1950s. There he meets Miller Packard, the "Mile-Away Man," who seems, to Walk, as though he "was someplace else half the time, like not everything was getting through."

Packard takes a liking to Walk, his laconic manner and his golfing skill. Packard, a police detective, also meets Norah Still after she is raped and her husband murdered during a hijacking on their yacht.

The crime is traced back to one of the main caddies at the country club, and Train is questioned. But after a condescending interview by a racist detective, Train makes one of literary history's most low-key escapes from a police station by simply walking out.

Train returns home, where he does commit a crime, one which sends him out on the road.

Packard and Still, sharing a secret about what happened on the yacht, become romantically involved, and Train and his friend Plural become inexorably linked, working and living together.

Soon afterward, Train and Packard cross paths again. The result is a partnership of hustling people in golf matches. Also, Train and Plural, blind and punch-drunk from a boxing career, move into the guest house next to the home where Packard and Still live.

The combustible combination of memory, class and race that accompanies the proximity of the three main characters eventually becomes too much, leading to a shocking but somewhat inevitable conclusion.

The novel does not completely satisfy and can sometimes seem detached, but its strength lies in Dexter's ability to get across the immediacy of the characters and situations.

While many writers strive to create atmosphere and tension, Dexter does so effortlessly. It serves him well and makes "Train" a memorable book.

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