'Train' rides the
dangerous rails to
golf's dark side

By Chris Traber,

Sport, as a metaphor for fictionalized lives and times, has been a convenient literary device employed by numerous writers.

Golf in particular has been used liberally in comedies and tragedies alike. Witness such classic novels as Golf In The Kingdom by Michael Murphy, Take Dead Aim by Don Wade, The Greatest Player Who Never Lived by J. Michael Veron and Cut Shot by John R. Corrigan. Cinematically, golf has had starring roles in Tin Cup, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Caddy Shack, Happy Gilmore, Dead Solid Perfect and Follow the Sun, Ben Hogan's classic biopic with Glenn Ford.

By virtue of golf's ethereal perplexities and properties, the great game makes a great stage. Heretofore golf-based novels were relatively good-natured with occasional murder and mayhem, PG ratings at worst.

Pete Dexter has changed all with his new book, Train.

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Dexter, a seasoned novelist and recipient of the 1998 National Book Award for his work, Paris Trout, has a penchant for the mot noir, southern Goth and genre grotesque. A skilled chronicler of society's visceral underbelly and its denizens, Dexter is a modern, more economical and harder edged Dashiell Hammett. Published by Doubleday, Train is his first book in nearly a decade since his previous best selling God's Pocket, Deadwood, Brotherly Love, and The Paperboy.

Set in Los Angeles of 1953, Lionel Walk, Jr., is a young African-American caddy at Brookline, a country club that's as exclusive as it is segregated. His nickname is Train. (Think about it.) In his late teens, Lionel (Get it?) is an intelligent, kindly soul whose own prodigious talent for the game has largely been unrealized. Using his mouth and ears proportionately, he has a keen sense for gauging character as well as the state of his own wounded psyche. He endures the racism and hostility of his white "totes" and the brutality of the other caddies. He is never without a found Tommy Armour autograph 9-iron, "not wanting to get on the bus anymore without something in his hands."

Miller Packard is an emotionally damaged, enigmatic man, a survivor of a horrific World War II navy shelling. A sergeant with the San Diego police department, Packard first meets Train at Brookline where he scratches his itch for hustling golf marks, gambling well beyond his remuneration as a policeman. Packard's distracted destructive nature and boredom with mundane risks prompts Train to privately name the cop "Mile-Away Man". As Packard's caddy in an eventful high stakes round with a fat lout named Pink, Train immediately recognizes an anguished, dangerous man with a compassionate side.

Thus, begins an unlikely relationship between the duo that sees them partnering in big money golf games while a separate yet parallel plot develops around Norah Still, the winsome lone survivor of a terrifying yacht hijacking and double murder investigated by Packard. Like magnets willed by cosmic kismet, the lives and fates of Packard, Train, Still and other memorable characters intersect much like cars heading for an unmarked crossroad. The yarn is as compelling as it is raw and sinister, brutal and poignant.

Particularly effective is the author's ear for cultural vernacular. The story is written mostly in third person narrative but Train's perspective shifts into the first person black dialect of his understanding. Dexter purposely butchers verb tenses but the seemingly inarticulate dialogue is poetic. "The ball players had to paid Whitey their five dollars before they went out to the driving range ... and there was one player called Melrose English that nobody like to had in their group"

Fans of tightly crafted suspense thrillers flavored with dark humor and pathos will enjoy Train. Golfers will devour it.

The on course scenes, colorful, shady characters and edgy thrust and parry of the matches and dialogue will strike a nerve. These golf games aren't Tin Cup's Kevin Costner repeatedly slamming fairway shots into a pond on 18 to make a point. Rather, the protagonists face the type of opponents who'd not think twice about paying off a $50 Nassau with a broken driver shaft between the eyes.

Intense too is Dexter's insightful panorama on the game. When a player struggles and chokes: "Golf was like that, as cruel as a clubfoot."

An obese club member in gaudy pastel pants is described as having thighs that look like "children hiding in the curtains."

Cynical, dark humor: When an elderly black caddy dies beside the green after lugging a fat man's bag, a member of the foursome callously remarks, "Maybe next time we won't be sitting around forty-five minutes while somebody dies." Packard, also in the foursome, responds, "He looked like he was dying as fast as he could."

A fellow caddy's sage advice to young Train: "The world is a hungry place, man. And whatever kind of thing you is, there's something out there that likes to eat it. It's natural. That's how the world keeps tidy."

As Packard and Train conspire together against fellow gamblers, the story reveals a subversive subculture of golf club wielding sharks who, not unlike their billiard hall brethren, prey on enthusiastic amateurs, baiting the unwary with small, friendly wagers before sealing the deal on a con for major change.

Dexter's narrative is as stark, crisp and satisfying as a pure 7-iron off dewy turf. "And golf felt good in a new way it never felt before. Something besides being the center of things and winning money. Train thought about how long he played this game before he found out that he liked it for itself."

The golf plots of the book are wonderful and frightening juxtapositions to the barbaric scenes related to the murder investigation and the fate of the characters. Nonetheless, both dovetail neatly, serving up fresh observations on the human condition as it was in post war America. From the manicured landscapes of posh private clubs to seedy industrial tracks, the golfing idiosyncrasies, temperament, foibles and adventures of the heroes and villains are engaging, tense and often hilarious.

Dexter's previous novel closed with a splendid line: "There are no intact men." Train chugs along powerfully, fueled by this axiom. In the end, the story that runs as fast as a tee ball "on a jail break", is as much a fresh thriller as it about thrilling golf.

During a recent book tour interview, Dexter was asked what Train was all about. Laconically he replied, "About 300 pages."

And each is a gem.

About the author. Pete Dexter, born in Michigan in 1943, received a BA from the University of South Dakota prior to a career as a journalist. He has been a reporter and a columnist in Florida and Philadelphia and still writes a weekly syndicated column in Sacramento, California. His work appears regularly in Esquire and Playboy . Dexter is also a past winner of the Pen Center USA West award. His screenwriting credits include Mulholland Falls, Michael, starring John Travolta, and Rush, a gritty movie about undercover cops posing as drug addicts.

He lives on an island in the Puget Sound with his wife and daughter. He golfs occasionally with the local dentist.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.