OK, so I didn’t finish reading The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton until Mrs. YHT and I had gotten back from vacation. But I’m counting it as my final sick vacation read.
I started Edgerton’s novel when I was knee-deep (or chest-deep, I should say) in the same cold that gave me the time to read Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat and the inspiration to buy Adam Brent Houghtaling’s This Will End in Tears. And while The Night Train has its own share of villainy and sadness, the net effect is considerably sunnier. Triumphant, even. And did I mention it totally rocks?
The story takes place in early 1960’s rural North Carolina, where segregation is in full swing and a pair of teenage coworkers — one white, one black — are testing the boundaries of their community’s racial code. Edgerton does a wonderful job of drawing the necessary lines, listing the roads and railroad tracks that separate neighborhoods and demographic groups with a cruel straightness. But The Night Train isn’t ultimately about people being kept apart, because it celebrates a force that’s bigger than racism, railroads and geography combined — something that’s been bringing people together since people existed: Music.
I’m going to err on the sides of vagueness and brevity here, because there are moments in The Night Train that you’re going to want to experience without having been forewarned. What I will say is this: Edgerton doesn’t just make the point that music brings people together; he shows you exactly how it brings people together. In just 200 quickly read pages, music subverts power relationships, sprouts self-esteem in people who aren’t supposed to have any, causes people to look up to people they’re supposed to look down upon, fosters understanding between generations, opens up safe spaces, creates shared heroes, gives people hope… it does all this and more, building to an ending as climactic and heartwarming as I can remember reading. (I wanted to jump out of bed and do a dance when I read it. Seriously. You need to read this book.)
There’s just one more thing I wanted to say, which is a hearty “thank you” to Mr. Edgerton. I’ve been getting heavy into soul music recently, buying up Aretha and Otis records, learning about Stax and Volt, but I hadn’t been able to find an entry point into James Brown’s catalog. And not for a lack of trying — his classics just seemed more like grooves than songs, and I always felt like I was missing some key ingredient that everyone except me was able to taste. I’m happy to say that The Night Train has me pointed in a much better direction, now that I have some important historical information and a single album to focus on — Brown’s Live at the Appollo, 1962 recording (it figures prominently in the plot). I’m looking forward to listening to it online and keeping an eye out for a vinyl copy, even though I gather that it won’t be easy to find. Hey, I told you music gives people hope…
Click here to buy The Night Train from Amazon and listen below to the book’s namesake tune.
James Brown — “Night Train” [Spotify/iTunes]
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