The darkest ids this side of noir

Thomas Curwen is a Times staff writer.

Pete DEXTER is a master of manipulation. As if his characters aren't enough on their own -- who can forget Paris Trout from the 1988 National Book Award-winning novel of the same name? -- he has to throw them into a room together, no matter the circumstances, just to see the sparks fly, and fly they do.

Take this scene from his latest novel, "Train," set in 1950s Los Angeles. A man and a woman are racing along a lonely stretch of Coast Highway north of San Diego. The Jaguar's speedometer is about to hit 80, and they're feeling a little more than just the heat of the engine, when out of nowhere they slam into a deer and careen into a ditch. Both survive with hardly a scratch but enough adrenaline to get them started up again -- this time against the trunk of the car -- and when they're done, they decide to try to hitch a ride for help. A black Ford pulls up; its driver and his female companion, people you'd want to avoid under the best of conditions, offer a lift, and the stranded couple agree.

Dexter plays this interlude -- midway through "Train" -- with obvious delight. We see the driver, with his stubby, massive arms, and his Coca-Cola-swilling lady friend. We see the dirt road they unexpectedly turn onto, headlights combing the brush, then the darkness and the proposition, and when it's over, the driver's gone deaf, his lady friend is screaming and there's a dime-sized hole in the Ford's roof.

You might call it flirting with disaster, but that's far too delicate. "Noir" is too easy for this. In Dexter's hands, sex, even when it's consensual, hurts. Violence, though poetic (after a shotgun blast: "the air turned pink over the water"), is stomach-wrenching, and as if one or the other weren't enough, Dexter crawls inside his characters to peel back the darkest ids that ever motivated either. Thankfully, though, there's little psychologizing in "Train." Like his characters, Dexter hasn't the time for much thinking. His story succeeds on momentum and reflex, one disturbing response after another, until finally the pieces settle queasily into place. Thinking would spoil everything.

Begin with Miller Packard, a war-ravaged vet (and the man behind the wheel of the Jag), who's just a little deranged for having survived the July 1945 sinking of the Indianapolis and those legendary days that followed as he and his shipmates bobbed in the Pacific like corks, circled by sharks. When we first meet him, he works in a fire department, tries to forget himself in a love affair that sours and discovers that he doesn't have anything left inside.

To fill the void, he starts visiting neighborhood bars, picking fights and heading for the door as soon as the locals reach for their baseball bats. Usually he's fast enough to outrun them. Usually.

Flash-forward five years. Packard is now a member of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and plays golf with a slight limp. On the course one day, he meets a young black caddy named Lionel Walk, whom everyone calls Train. They like each other's quiet manner, partner for two days, making some quick cash (Train could give Ben Hogan a run for his money), and then they part company.

Cut to a yacht moored in Newport Harbor. Two thugs, who happen to be black, climb aboard, murder a deckhand and the owner, and rape and mutilate the owner's wife. It's a scene as brutal as anything James Ellroy has rolled out, and their bloody spree ends when Packard shows up. He shoots one of the thugs, the other drowns; everyone agrees they were resisting arrest.

Dexter wastes no time throwing the rest of the novel into high gear. Packard begins an affair with the owner's widow that leads to marriage. Train, who worked at the same golf course as the two thugs, lands a job at a new golf course. And while some may strive to improve themselves and their world -- the widow, for instance, was (before her violation) a member of the NAACP, and the owner of Train's new course dreams of creating "integrated housing on a golf course" -- their efforts defy human nature.

Because human nature -- no matter the color of the skin -- is Dexter's real quarry. He delights in making us squirm, in capturing on the page behavior we'd probably prefer not to see. How else can you explain this detail? "The woman set the tick carefully on the edge of her lower front teeth and bit down. There was a tiny pop and then she spit on the floor and made a face." Call it shock for the shock's sake, which isn't entirely unentertaining. 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.

By the time Train and Packard catch up with one another again, Train is greenskeeper at his new course and living in a neighborhood gym with a punch-drunk companion named Plural. Packard moves them into his Beverly Hills home (he likes to rattle people, even if it's his new wife), and he takes Train on the Nassau circuit, quickly emptying the pockets of anyone who thinks black kids can't golf.

As for Packard and the widow, they continue to court danger at their own expense, and as long as they keep moving -- like sharks -- they'll stay alive, which is, of course, their fatal flaw: "She had the idea then that if she could keep laughing, everything would be all right. Laughing, dancing, drinking, smiling, just like Packard.... She looked at her new husband and thought, for the first time, that she understood what he'd meant when he told her to try to think of [the details of her assault] as a story about other people."

Dexter may be a master at creating character and capturing the sparks that fly in these narrow rooms, but a novel must also provide the hallways and the doors that connect the rooms. Dexter's scenes are disturbingly magnificent, but he relies a little too much on coincidence, as if the ideas he's working with are more important than the vileness of the story itself, and a novel that relies on violence to drive the action needs to be more complex, even messy, at its heart.

"The world is a hungry place, man," Plural reminds Train one warm night as they lie awake in the Packards' guesthouse. "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."

For all the seemingly random encounters and all the memorable scenes, "Train" is too carefully calculated for its own good. Dexter's is a dog-eat-dog world -- now if it were just a little less tidy.

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