L.A. Noir, In The Rough

Lionel Walk, whose nick-name supplies the title for Pete Dexter's dazzling new novel, "Train," caddies at an exclusive Los Angeles country club in the early '50s. Something of a golf prodigy himself, the 18-year-old Train does his best not to draw attention to his talent: to a young black man in segregated America, attention almost always means trouble. He survives by paying close attention to everything around him, even the way a fat man's legs move in his slacks "like children hiding in the curtains." But despite his efforts at invisibility, Train catches the eye of a weekend golfer named Miller Packard, who turns out to be a cop. Train doesn't trust Packard--the first thing he notices is the gun in his golf bag--but when Train gets caught up in a murder investigation, it's Packard who gets him out of harm's way. If you think this is good news, you've never read a detective story.

Sure, we've been here before: noir-era L.A., where corruption lurks under the shiny surface. In no time, we get murders, a rape and a near race riot. What distinguishes Dexter's novel is how he refashions the shopworn furnishings of the genre into a fresh hell all his own. The violence in "Train" is random and quick and comes out of nowhere. This isn't the deterministic world we're used to in noir, but something far more frightening--a world ruled by chance and whim.

Motive counts for nothing in this nightmare. Packard means well, but he has a way of helping people out of one jam and into another. Norah, the rape victim, becomes his lover and then his wife, wondering at every step just what it is she's gotten into. When she tries to talk about what happened to her--besides being raped, she saw her husband murdered--Packard "would tell her to think of it as a story with other people in it. He didn't tell her what those people did afterwards." In time, she recognizes that Packard "always had some kind of game going, it was his nature." He plays the hero, and he plays with people's lives. Norah and Train are saved by Packard, but they are also his victims.

The unlikely counterweight to all this bleakness, the bright spot in an otherwise pitch-black landscape, is Train's talent with a golf club, about which Dexter writes with a unique grace: "Train began to feel the weight of the club in his hands, to feel where it was, and after that the swing happened by itself, like it always had, like something he hid and then remembered where it was." The golf course is Train's brier patch, but the fleeting freedom that he feels there has the effect of making the rest of his life look even more tragic.

In the guise of a fast-paced, commercial crime novel, Dexter gives us a fresh take on race and sex that superbly captures the despair felt by those who are powerless to control their own destinies. It is to his credit that you never think about these things as long as you're in the spell of his narrative, which will have you drawing the curtains and taking the phone off the hook until you're done. This is an unforgettable book from a writer so talented that he can not only make golf exciting to read about, but also get your hopes up even when you know there's not the faintest chance of a happy ending.