Synopses & Reviews
Train is an 18-year-old black caddy at an exclusive L.A. country club. He is a golf prodigy, but the year is 1953 and there is no such thing as a black golf prodigy. Nevertheless, Train draws the interest of Miller Packard, a gambler whose smiling, distracted air earned him the nickname "the Mile Away Man." Packard's easy manner hides a proclivity for violence, and he remains an enigma to Train even months later when they are winning high stakes matches against hustlers throughout the country. Packard is also drawn to Norah Still, a beautiful woman scared in a hideous crime, a woman who finds Packard's tendency toward violence both alluring and frightening. In the ensuing triangular relationship kindness is never far from cruelty.
In Train, National Book Award winner Pete Dexter creates a startling, irresistibly readable book that crackles with suspense and the live-wire voices of its characters.
"Extraordinary....This masterful book is such a formidable achievement, it creates its own frame of reference. Other writers must now be measured against Pete Dexter." San Francisco Chronicle
"In clear, pitch-perfect prose, Dexter moves the relentless story forward, exposing the ironies and dark undercurrents of charitable actions. The calamitous conclusion looms over the novel from the start, and it comes just as the reader knows it must." Publishers Weekly
"What deepens and darkens [Dexter's] writing, so that art is the precise word
to describe it, is a powerful understanding that character rules, that we live
with our weaknesses and die of our strengths." John Skow, Time
"There are pleasures aplenty: superbly rendered characters, every detail just right....And, perhaps best of all, there's the golf: fitting naturally into its noir context." Booklist
"As always, Dexter gets violence on paper with a harsh precision, and the pages turn with a potboiler's fleetness. When the final boom rumbles, readers are likely to be up well past their bedtimes." Jonathan Miles, New York Times
"The strength of the novel lies far beyond its noirish setting or graphic plot twists. It is rather in Dexter's assured and direct handling of the ever-tangled subject of how ordinary people try to ford the nation's racial divide in pursuit of, or in flight from, deeper human truths." Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post
"Dexters skill resides in keeping an atmosphere of menace close to the surface at all times, so that the violent collision of the worlds surrounding Packard seems inevitable." The New Yorker
"Dexter...may not exactly be a noir writer, but he has always had an affinity for the urban underside, and with Train he plunges headfirst into hard-boiled territory, producing a work as visceral as a knife blade to the throat." Chicago Tribune
"With a narrative taut, tight and unrelenting, this is Dexter's best novel since his National Book Award-winning Paris Trout....It's mean, tough and tender, and emotionally, and conceptually, highly charged." Houston Chronicle
"With an exhilarating crime novel that mixes race, sex, murder and yes, golf Pete Dexter hits a hole in one." Newsweek
"Dexter is a superb writer....The narrative flows and weaves, dips and dances like a boxer in a championship bout." The Oregonian
"Train is another morally questioning, tough-guy novel....Dexter's writing is a living thing. It doesn't draw attention to itself; it just works." Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
"[U]nsparing....Train pulses with energy and meanness....But its characters are puppets, and its plot whiplashes about like an enraged pit bull shaking its prey to death. Prototypical Dexter, not nearly at his best." Kirkus Reviews
"It's easy to get lost in Dexter's beautifully constructed sentences....Too often the author seems to be writing simply because he has time on his hands, as though the whole novel is nothing but a series of engrossing but ultimately pointless tangents." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"Dexter's writing fleshes its potboiler skeleton with a complicated beauty that makes you sorry when you come to the end. All you want is to continue reading this prose, regardless of what it may be talking about." South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"Train is more than James Ellroy meets Tiger Woods. Dexter, in his lean, powerful style, digs into the complex dangers of race and love." Miami Herald
"Dexter so skillfully weaves a feeling of never-ending dread into Train that you keep thumbing the pages wondering just when and how deep the bottom will drop. Because you know it will....Dexter's scenes are disturbingly magnificent..." Los Angeles Times
"The novel's darkness and violence are often balanced by its humor and quirky characters....Train has the inevitability of Greek tragedy..." San Antonio Express-News
"Utterly gripping....A superbly written book....Illuminated by vivid flashes of humor and humanity....Cunningly structured for maximum impact." The Economist
"Because of Dexter's ability to put the reader inside the darkest recesses of his characters, it doesn't matter that there won't be a happy ending for anyone. Just like a train wreck, you have to look anyway." Hartford Courant
"Spectacular, explosive....Mythic, comic and tragic, Train yields a treasure trove of harsh human wisdom." St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Dexter masterfully builds the suspense and each unwholesome character bounces off the other as the novel wends toward denouement....This is Dexter in top noir form, as only he can pull it off." Denver Post
"Dexter's prose is muscular, dead-pan, hard-boiled. He evokes the '50s and its hypocrisies with deft sketches of people, places and encounters." Seattle Post-Intelligencer
National Book Award winner Pete Dexter crafts a stunning novel of crime, race, and unlikely liaisons a tautly written Los Angeles noir set in the 1950s that brings to mind Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.
About the Author
Pete Dexter is the author of the National Book Award winner Paris Trout and of God's Pocket, Deadwood, Brotherly Love, and The Paperboy. He was born in Michigan and raised in Georgia, Illinois, and eastern South Dakota. He lives in Puget Sound, Washington.
Reading Group Guide
1. The narrator tells us that even before Miller Packard spent five days in the ocean after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis
, “hed deliberately and often put himself in places where he saw awful things happen not only to people who deserved it but also to people who just seemed to stumble in at the wrong time” [p. 1]. Packard has a taste for provoking violence even before the nightmare of sharks in the Pacific, even before his leg is nearly destroyed in an attack by a dog [pp. 7–8]. Why is he addicted to violence, and how does the reader respond to this aspect of his
2. While Packards habit of seeing himself “from a distance” [p. 3] suggests that he experiences what psychologists call dissociation, Train experiences something similar when he kills Mayflower with the leg of a chair: “It was still in his hand when [his mother] come back to the house and saw him in the kitchen, and saw what hed done” [p. 91]. Train is consistently shown to be a character with a gentle and cautious nature; what makes him lose control and kill Mayflower? Does Dexter suggest that his characters are at the mercy of events that are simply unbearable?
3. Consider the way Dexter presents the characters thoughts or self-expression. Train and Plural have much greater interiority than Packard and Norah. Their emotional lives are not only more fully imagined but also more accessible through the narrative point of view. Why has Dexter delivered his characters in this way; why do the black characters evoke more sympathy than the white ones?
4. “From his earliest memory,” Packardd “had a facility to see himself from a distance. Sometimes when he thought about it, it seemed like hed been someplace else, watching himself, for most of his life” [p. 3]. Train calls Packard the “Mile Away Man.” How does this aspect of Packards character affect his relationship with Train? With Norah? Is he a man who wants to connect, but cant?
5. Why does Packard give Train the money that is supposedly for Floridas widow? Why does he make a bet with the fat man that “Mr. Walk here does the right thing” [p. 29]? By giving the money to Sweet, does Train show that hes too innocent for the world he finds himself in?
6. What are the main events in the novels plot, and is there a clear climax? What kinds of episodes create suspense? Weigh the exploration of character against the narrative passages. Which is more predominant? Does one element seem more important in the novel than the other?
7. All four of the main characters in the novelPackard, Norah, Train, and Pluralare capable of unpredictable outbursts of violence. What is Dexter suggesting about the nature of violent actionwhat provokes it, how is it controlled, and when do internal controls break down?
8. Why does Packard befriend Train? Does he do so out of generosity and interest, or with a view to making money from Trains talent? Considering that Packard takes most of the money that they win, is he simply exploiting Train?
9. A major part of Train is about the love between Norah and Packard. The novel opens with the words, “At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didnt trust what hed heard of the lingo. . . . It sounded out of control to him, and messy” [p. 1]. What draws them to love each other, and what drives them apart, finally?
10. How is Norah like the women in the crime fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and how is she different? Early on, she is presented as a woman who relies on men: “One way or another, men had been trying to protect her or save her all her life. She brought that out in them, even after she had stopped trying” [p. 56]. Does she change throughout the course of the story? How does her final act in the novel relate to this statement?
11. Dexter has chosen Los Angeles, circa 1953, as the setting for his novel. What details make the setting come alive? How does the background of racial tension make itself felt in the setting?
12. The wife of the owner of Paradise Developments, susan “no capital S” [p. 108], puts together an exhibit of images of black men she calls “Images from the Working Life” [p. 116] which includes pictures of two men hacking each other to death. How does her sexual exploitation of Train and other black men contribute to the storys insistence on a clear-eyed view of racism? How does her sexual predation relate to Arthur and Sweets rape of Norah?
13. Plural is perhaps the most surprising character in the story. What elements contribute to Plurals charm and strangeness? Is he, too, in certain scenes, a frighteningly unpredictable person? Is he, at least at times, insane?
14. Given the breakdown of the relationship between Packard and Norah after Norah becomes pregnant, has Dexter created a situation in which the reader expects a disastrous ending? If so, what elements have gone into making the final scene one that ishowever shockingnot unexpected? Is it clear what happens to Packard at the end?
15. Plural says to Train, “The world is a hungry place, man. . . . And whatever kind of thing you is, theres something out there that likes to eat it. Its natural. Thats how the world keeps tidy” [p. 240]. Might this statement be considered a summary of the novels pessimistic worldview? And if so, is there any hope for survival?
16. Dexter has been highly praised as a prose stylist; he is also skilled at giving his characters unique voices. Choose a few passages that exhibit the virtuosity of his writing and discuss what makes them stand out.
17. What genre of fiction does this book inhabit? Is it classifiable as a crime novel in the noir style, as a novel about race and racism, or as a psychological thriller, or is it something unique?