For the characters in Train, the latest book by Pete Dexter, golf isn't a gentleman's game; it's an eighteen-hole lesson in existentialism. After one player loses a bet, he curses "like he just saw life's grand design, as often happened in golf." And later, Dexter says, "I talk about how the only thing that lasts in golf is the disappointment."
Sentiments like these come easily to Dexter, a writer who's never shied away from walking on the dark side. His slashing prose, honed to a keen edge during his years as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and other publications, routinely rises above genre conventions, which helps explain why his Paris Trout, an unflinching narrative set in the Deep South, won the National Book Award in 1988. This achievement helped bring Dexter to the attention of Hollywood, where he earned script credit on high-profile flicks such as 1995's Wild Bill, inspired in part by his atmospheric novel Deadwood. Yet the majority of his adventures in the film trade have been less than satisfying.
"You're usually in there with people who are 28 years old and worried about their careers," he points out. "So much of it is, 'This worked last time. How can we copy it?' And that gets old. It's kind of funny, but it's no way for a grownup to live."
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With that in mind, Dexter began clearing the decks after the 1995 publication of The Paperboy, a tome partly inspired by his years in newspapering. He didn't withdraw from the world entirely, however. "I wrote a couple of short stories, messed with some screenplays and another novel, built a house in Mexico," he recalls. But for the most part, "I just sort of wandered -- and I don't mean physically wandered. My mind kind of wandered. I just took some time and thought things over a little bit. I didn't feel much like doing anything else."
That changed after Train started tugging on him. "I'd been doing it a little bit here and there when it occurred to me it was time to do the real thing," he says. "I started not getting up until I had seven, eight, nine hundred words every day. That's how you know you're not just playing with a novel; you're writing it."
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These sessions coalesced into a terse tale of 1950s Los Angeles that revolves around Lionel Walk, aka Train, a teen golfing prodigy whose future is limited by his black skin. Train's interactions with Miller Packard, a cop with more than his share of secrets, and Norah Still, who's brutally raped by men who killed her husband, allow Dexter to touch upon themes of race, class and the lingering effects of violence. As for Plural, a friend of Train's who vacillates between kindness and unthinking rage, he provides an element of danger and unpredictability. "In some ways, he's my favorite character in the book, because you don't know what he's going to do, and neither did I," Dexter says.
Not that Dexter believes in making the writing process seem mystical, or even particularly difficult. "Pulling stuff out of yourself that's true isn't easy," he allows, "but compared to real work, it is. If writing were as hard as people say it is, and as lonely, there'd be a lot less of them doing it."
He's just as eager to debunk the mythology that's built up around golf. He claims to have only played one truly top-flight round -- he shot a 67 a year or two ago -- "and even when I was playing way over my head, it wasn't that much fun. I was just walking around a little surprised where the ball was going. It wasn't that special."
So much for life's grand design.