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Peter Dexterís dangerous back nines
By Pete Dexter. Doubleday, 280 pages, $24.95.

"You know how sometimes you read a story in the paper," says a character in Train, Pete Dexterís hard-boiled new novel. "[A] person out in the valley somewhere stepped out the front door to get the milk and was run over by the milk truck? . . . Well . . . from what Iíve seen, it happens more than you think."

This statement ó a sort of crude joke leavened by innocent hope and counterweighted with the gritty real-life irony of its punch line ó could have come straight from the mouth of its author, Pete Dexter. A journalist who began writing novels after he was beaten nearly to death for what he wrote in a story, Dexter has spent his career as a fiction writer (he won the National Book Award for 1988ís Paris Trout) reminding us that bad things do indeed happen for no good reason.

Set in Los Angeles in the early í50s, Train is his most stylish reminder of this idea yet. Train, the novelís eponymous young African-American hero, works as a caddy at a country club where fat men wager three-inch thick bankrolls and like their caddies to be invisible. Train has no problem with this job requirement, even though he could probably keep up with Ben Hogan over 18 holes.

That is, until along comes Miller Packard, a mysterious sergeant from the San Diego police department. Whimsical and full of coiled aggression, Packard takes a shine to Train, who he realizes might be the only honest man in LA. Packard makes Train his sole caddy and looks after the young man. When two other black caddies commit a violent crime, Packard keeps tabs on Train, rescues him from destitution, and forms an unusual bond with him.

As with Dexterís 1995 Paperboy, Train starts slowly and then settles into a rhythm of short and long chapters broken down into discreet set pieces. The game of golf is described with exquisite care. It both provokes and sublimates the strained relationship between blacks and whites. Here is Train proving how good he is:

"They came down a hill, where Mr. Packard spotted a snake hole in the fairway, a little over a hundred yards to the green, and he took a ball out of his pocket and set it on top. Set there about like ice cream on the cone. Train did not like snakes, never had. He looked at the flag and then at the ball and the pile of fresh dirt it was laying against and took the eight iron out of his bag instead of a wedge, and shortened his swing. The ball came out low and spinning, and stopped where it hit the green. Stopped dead."

Dexter shifts his third-person narration among characters, but Trainís is the predominant point of view. He is continually observing and yet painfully aware that he will never be able to act on what he deduces. This tension between what Train knows and what he can say, combined with Packardís protectiveness toward him, provokes Packardís natural volatility.

Dexter combines the highest skills of journalist and novelist: sure narrative technique and a keen eye for both physical detail and social strata; here his angle is the tense coexistence of two societies. There are the black caddies and course employees, who scramble over one another for work and bragging rights. And there are the gangsters and the dissipated rich who come to the course to sublimate their violent real-life competition.

Train forms a bridge between these two societies, and through his eyes we see that, black or white, people are going to take advantage of one another. But this dynamic turns explosive when the grappling for power crosses racial lines. Train gets a job at another course, where, shortly before he starts work, two black groundskeepers hack each other to pieces. We later learn that the cause of their aggression was a sultry white female photographer who played the men off each other and probably staged the incident.

This violence may seem melodramatic, but in Dexterís world ó especially with his restrained presentation ó it makes sense. It is often senseless and costly, and it sometimes happens to people who are trying to do the right thing. When Packard starts taking Train to golf courses all over the country so he can win back some pride and make some money, often from white players, you know things will end wrong. Still, because this is Pete Dexter, and because each one of his sentences reminds you of the danger of just being alive, youíll keep reading.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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