August 2011

Humor and racial reverb, smooth like jazz

By Clyde Edgerton
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No one can find the fun in human dynamics like Clyde Edgerton, the author of such keenly observed Southern romps as Raney and The Bible Salesman. Here, that fun accompanies a darker plot about the uneasy interplay of the races in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the story, the black-and-white reverberations thump deep down underneath like a jazz beat, with a riff of humor on top.

Dwayne Hallston and Larry Lime Nolan live in small-town Starke, North Carolina, in the 1960s, an unlikely region and time for race differences to take second place to anything else. Yet unaccountably, they mostly fade away in the boys’ mutual love of jazz. Larry, who is black, takes jazz lessons from a local musician, aiming to play the piano like Thelonious Monk. Dwayne, who is white, dreams of reprising the music of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album with his own band, The Amazing Rumblers.

Edgerton’s humor lurks in turns of phrase as much as in incidents. (Larry’s little dog was tired because “he’d got to staying gone lately.”) He doesn’t make the mistake of mocking any of his characters. His one potential villain, Mr. Fitzsimmons, is more of a devil ex machina, who, like the KKK, gets almost imperceptibly weaker as time passes.

Aunt Marzie, keeper of the unwritten archives of the black community, is the source of much of the humor—with anecdotes like the story of the woman who was so thrifty with paper towels that she was able to will half a roll to a relative. Marzie also provides grand names to newborns (“Sunshine Booming Out Of Darkness and Sorrow Benjamin,” called “Sunny Boom Ben” for short). She’s the link between the past—the “few years of sunshine when good things happened” after the Civil War—the uneasy present and the inconceivable future.

Edgerton, an ardent jazz fan and performer himself, is uniquely equipped to render jazz on paper. He makes its appeal across racial lines unmistakable and sketches in its promise for the future.

Ending with at least a temporary resolution between black and white, the beat of The Night Train offers a hint of eventual reconciliation even beyond, perhaps, the transcendent service of music itself.

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The Night Train

The Night Train

By Clyde Edgerton
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316117593

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