Dexter's 'Train'
A story of two living the daredevil life

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, February 6, 2005

Pete Dexter, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, is roadside somewhere in the isolated flats of the Texas panhandle -- and he doesn't seem to like it.

"It's bleak. Every bit as bad as you can imagine," he says, his voice transmitted faintly over a tenuous cellphone relay.

But in Dexter's world, this may mean something good.

Dexter is driving to the East Coast from his home in Washington state's Puget Sound to kick off a book tour timed to the paperback release of his latest novel, "Train" (Vintage; 288 pages; $13). Thursday, Dexter will read from the novel as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series.

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, "Train" is a gritty but often beautiful tale that explores Dexter's trademark themes: the ugliness of racism and the magnetic pull of lust and violence.

These are subjects Dexter knows well. Part of his youth was spent in the South, where he witnessed the effects of segregation; as a young adult, he took up boxing as a pastime; in the '80s, Dexter was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, often covering the city's most brutal crimes in what he describes as a "man about town" column.

One of his columns, about the grisly death of a young man caught in a drug deal gone bad, inadvertently launched his fiction writing career -- but not without a painful and severe price.

Although Dexter's article was sympathetic to the victim, the young man's family didn't take kindly to the attention it drew. "His brother called me up and said he was going to break my hands," Dexter recalls. "He bartended in Devil's Pocket, which has got to be the worst neighborhood in the city -- maybe anywhere. I thought I could talk to him and work it out, so I went down there."

Dexter was accompanied that night by Randall "Tex" Cobb, an actor (he played the demonic bounty hunter in "Raising Arizona") and professional prizefighter who lost a decision for the WBC World heavyweight title to Larry Holmes in a bout so brutal that sportscaster Howard Cosell vowed afterward never to cover another fight.

"When we got to the bar about 30 guys with baseball bats came through the back door," Dexter says. "Cobb turned to me and said, 'I hope this is the local softball team.' "

In the ensuing melee, Dexter suffered a broken back and pelvis. During the long months of recuperation he began writing fiction. He would eventually go on to win the 1988 National Book Award for his novel "Paris Trout," which was adapted into a film starring Dennis Hopper and Ed Harris. His other novels have dealt with everything from the Old West ("Deadwood," which is not connected to the recent HBO series) and the mob ("Brotherly Love") to the moral complexities of journalism ("The Paperboy").

"Train" tells the story of Lionel "Train" Walk, a preternaturally talented 17-year-old black golfer with a swing so natural and sweet he could rival Ben Hogan. But this is the '50s, and Train's gifts go unrecognized at the exclusive all-white country club where he works as a caddy -- or at least until Miller Packard, a mysterious man working as a "consultant" to Los Angeles law enforcement, shows up one day and picks Train out of the bunch to carry his clubs.

Packard is a veteran of World War II and one of the few survivors of the USS Indianapolis disaster, in which scores of stranded crewmen were attacked by sharks after the cruiser was torpedoed in the Pacific. The experience has left Packard aloof even to his new wife, Norah Still, whom Packard met after killing the men responsible for her rape and the murder of her wealthy husband.

Train has had his own brushes with the law, but Packard takes him in and the two go on the road challenging wealthy white golfers to high-stakes games. The characters in "Train" spin in the same unstable orbit, bound by what Dexter describes as "the daredevil life," an existence from which they "couldn't go back." The conclusion is as inevitable as it is intense, enhanced by Dexter's rich and distinctive prose.

"I think I understand the narcotic of violence a lot better than most who write about it, how random it is and what drives it," Dexter says. "But I think the book is also a love story. It's about friendship and what ties people together, even if that thread is danger."

Dexter is adapting the book for the screen -- a challenge he's tackled before. Besides "Paris Trout," he wrote the screenplay to "Rush," starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric as undercover narcotic cops, and co-wrote "Michael," which offered John Travolta as a rough-around-the-edges angel on a final visit to earth.

He's working with filmmaker James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News") on a screenplay about former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who was forced to return her Pulitzer Prize after her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be a fabrication.

"Working in Hollywood is completely different" from writing novels, Dexter says. "Some of it can be aggravating. (Screenplays) get sent to rewrite heaven. On the other hand, some of my experiences with Hollywood are the best I've ever had. And they pay me pretty good."

Kevin Lanahan is a freelance writer from Clifton Park.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Pete Dexter