The lyrics to James Brown's "Night Train," the spasm of zealous soul relief that closes his 1963 classic album, Live at the Apollo, consists almost entirely of a list of East Coast cities. "Miami, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, Raleigh, North Carolina," shouts Brown, climbing up the seaboard. Clyde Edgerton sets his latest and most compelling novel in years, The Night Train, in the fictional town of Starke, just a few hours east of Raleigh, and just as Live at the Apollo arrives in the hands of Brown's rural listeners.
Edgerton uses the album—a brash, unapologetic paroxysm of black power elation—as an avenue to explore racial attitudes in Starke, months before King's "I have a dream" pronouncement in Washington and Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. Dwayne Hallston leads The Amazing Rumblers, a band of teenage boys who play country covers and a few rock 'n' roll standards. One of his best friends is Larry Lime Nolan, aka Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe on Me Nolan, a budding black musician who's already graduated from his church-based lessons to weekly meetings with an enigmatic hemophiliac jazzman named The Bleeder. Hallston and Nolan work together in the same furniture shop where The Rumblers rehearse and where, when his outwardly cruel foreman isn't looking, Nolan repairs the old piano he uses for extra practice. Nolan eventually sneaks Hallston a copy of Live at the Apollo and tutors him in Brown's brash dances and fierce incantations. Hallston determines that The Rumblers will become his Famous Flames, and that they'll cover Live at the Apollo from start to finish. In this segregated town, Brown's skin isn't Hallston's concern.
Calling Hallston a black sympathizer would be incorrect, though, implying that there's some social or civil motivation to the way he treats Nolan. Rather, they're just kids, friends who play basketball and talk about movies, geek out over records and boast about girlfriends. Edgerton's protagonists treat each other as people, aware of their country's prickly racial divide but convinced that their friendship is their prerogative, not a matter of national policy. That idea is indicative of Edgerton's smartly interdisciplinary approach to story and setting here; his decision to co-opt "Night Train" as the book's title and to use Brown's album as a plot cornerstone is simply part of the complex, holistic view of life in his imagined town. The Night Train is very much about the slow, pained shift in race relations during one important moment, but its 200 pages speak to life, not laws. Edgerton employs not only music but also television, cuisine and, of course, the church to highlight the entrenched similarities and exaggerated differences between Starke's blacks and whites. He cuts behind the lines of race to realize that these people mostly appreciate the same things. "And since 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," writes Edgerton. "But something begins to break down there, doesn't it?"
That passage—a perfectly crystalized moment of wisdom—is a brief abandonment of the book's casually anecdotal style. Edgerton's characters and stories are his chief tools here, as he delivers great Southern yarns and punch lines with the authority and ease of someone who's experienced the region's idiosyncrasies firsthand. What's more, he makes these characters—singular, almost anonymous representatives of infinitesimal instances of systematic and interpersonal racism in innumerable towns and cities during these last few American centuries—tell a much bigger and more important story. Sure, Edgerton's tale of Hallston dropping Nolan's old rooster from a movie theater's balcony to scare the white patrons below during the middle of a movie is cute. And the two black caretakers who tease and taunt a racist old white woman after she goes lame from a stroke smacks of sweet, redemptive revenge. But each person is a bedrock of an idea, evolving gradually, if at all, each story an expression of an attitude that's either dying slowly or sprouting painfully. Almost five decades removed from the '60s in Starke, those same forces are undoubtedly still at work, a realization that makes The Night Train perceptively and tragically relevant.