Clyde Edgerton’s latest novel explores US racism and class in a subtle but incisive manner. The novel’s title, Night Train, is taken from James Brown’s song of the same name. Told in a deceptively laconic style, the story explores the relationship between two young men, Larry Lime and Dwayne, members of their families and the white and black communities in a small North Carolina town, circa 1963. Central to the novel is a regional variety show sponsored by a racist businessman that features local acts and a host that eats dog food. There is also a Klan member who runs a furniture refinishing shop. Larry and Dwayne are musicians and co-workers at the furniture refinishing shop. The two young men– one black and one white—become friends despite the social pressures against such relationships.
Having just moved back to New England from North Carolina (albeit from the quite progressive city of Asheville), I can vouch for the racial history Edgerton places his story in. The Klan is not a visible presence in too much of North Carolina these days, but the legacy of racism remains. Despite the end of legal apartheid, the fact of centuries of racial separation colors the economics and educational realities of the region. As the execution of Troy Davis illistrates rather graphically, those that uphold the status quo are given a greater say than those that don’t, even when their stories do not make sense.
Music is the bridge that transcends the racial gap in this novel. The country tunes that are standard among the white folks represent their cultural perspectives, troubles and joys as much as the shouts and beats of James Brown at his peak represent similar phenomena among the African-Americans in the novel. While rumors about sit-ins at lunch counters pepper the characters’ conversations, music attempts to bridge the gap. Naturally, the news stories are accompanied by commentaries from all the characters in the novel. Those commentaries reflect their fears and hopes as much as they reflect their separate and shared histories.
The novel culminates in a remembered scene from the aforementioned television show. After Dwayne’s band gets chosen to play in the talent show segment of the show, they choose two songs. One is a Hank Williams tune. The other, unbeknownst to the host and the audience, is James Brown’s song “Night Train.” After Dwayne’s band rips through an almost perfect rendition of the tune complete with the Godfather of Soul’s moves and cape, the variety show audience is stunned and the show is canceled by its racist sponsor. The host fondly remembers the aftermath of the moment.
I attended a small but vocal protest against Troy Davis’ execution in Burlington, Vermont the evening of September 21st. The speakers reminded those within earshot of the meaninglessness of Obama’s presidency in regards to the United States’ legacy of racism. The fact of a black-skinned man in the white house means the same as it always did. He isn’t running the country. He’s serving its masters. As Edgerton’s novel subtly states (and Troy Davis execution makes murderously clear), we can all get along, but what difference does that make when the powers that be will do what they can to keep things the way they are?
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: email@example.com