Dexter‘s latest opus contains his familiar theme of waste and the pain and destruction that can be caused by it, a, set against a backdrop of an exclusive Los Angeles golf course in 1953. His protagonist is 18-year-old African-American caddy Lionel “Train“ Walk (picture a much younger Tiger Woods), who has the potential to be a star in a game and at a place that is strictly off-limits to him. He‘s regularly abused and generally mistreated by the ignorant and snobbish members at the course, something that causes him more pain than he ever lets on, and the other caddies even play a part in his mistreatment. Train‘s simple dignity and special talent for the sport ignite fear and suspicion at every turn, and the burden is becoming more than he can bear.
The exception to this is Miller Packard, or “Mile-Away Man,“ as Train calls him. Packard is a decent golfer, a risk-taking gambler and an ethically-driven police sergeant who sees that he can be a savior of sorts to Train, whose natural affinity for golf doesn‘t escape him; and the beautiful, liberal Norah Rose Sill, who is viciously attacked in an attempted boat hijacking that claims the life of her husband.
In the first chapter, set in Philadelphia in 1948, we meet the enigmatic Packard and instantly become intrigued with a man for whom love seems as elusive as access for golf will be to Train:
“At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn‘t trust what he‘d heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.). It sounded out of control to him, and messy.
He had spent maybe a thousand Sundays in church, though -- make that four hundred -- and then two edgy years on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean, and then five very edgy days in the Pacific Ocean without the battleship, and before any of that, he‘d deliberately and often put himself in places where he saw awful things happen not only to people who deserved it, but also to people who just seemed to stumble in at the wrong time, walking into the picture as the shutter clicked through no fault of their own.
Which is to say that by now Packard recognized praying when he heard it, and knew the kind of the deals people would offer up, the promises they would make, when they were in over their heads. And that, from what he‘d heard, was what it love was about.
Later on, however, something in the feminine line in fact came along, custom-fit, and Packard, to his enormous surprise, found himself ape-s--- in tow. Although not every-fiber-of-my-being ape-s--- in tow. Of long habit, Packard only gave in quietly, without losing his dignity.
And much later on, when he was tamed and had the advantages of maturity and the long view, he would come to realize that everything that had happened was inevitable, that he was after all a human being, and it was therefore not in his nature to keep things simple.
Even the psychologist who did the pre-employment interview had seen something on Packard‘s horizon.
“Perhaps,“ he said, “you need someone to share this with.“
Packard had just described for the psychologist not his loveless life but his battleship, the Indianapolis, burning to the waterline in the night, and the days and nights of floating around in the Pacific Ocean with the sharks and burned and dying shipmates. The sharks came morning and evening, at meal time, and stayed about as long as it would take you to eat dinner. Packard to this day did not eat at regular hours, but aside from that, on the occasions when he asked himself how he felt, he felt approximately like the same person.
People he‘d known before the war, on the other hand, said he‘d changed, but he couldn‘t see it himself. As his grandmother had pointed out along time ago, he wasn‘t a real sweetheart to begin with.
Packard, by the way, had not brought any of this up to the psychologist himself. All he wanted was a job, and all the psychologist wanted was to keep his job, and he was required by the city‘s insurers to review applicants‘ military records and inquire specifically in regard to purple hearts.
The psychologist had a certain baritone manner that made Packard want to slap him, and he sat beneath his diplomas in a cheap suit, absently listening to an abbreviated history of Packard‘s war-time adventures, pinching his chin, making fifteen-dollar-an-hour dimples and grunts. He nodded from time to time, as if he‘d heard it all before.
Then, when the half hour was over, he said, “Perhaps you need someone to share this with.“
As Packard investigates the boat hijacking, he finds “someone to share this with“ in Norah and his friendship with Train blossoms when the young man loses his job and comes to find work as a groundskeeper at a rundown course he lovingly nurtures back into shape. Packard also begins mentoring Train, turning him into a money-making golf shark, something the reader knows will only prove disastrous. The brief idyll of hope and stability doesn‘t last long for these three, and trouble looms like an ever-darkening storm cloud, the momentum gathering but as tightly controlled as Dexter‘s sparse, effective prose style.
The book‘s end, which blends poetic justice and comic farce, feels inevitable and just right as a piece of heartbreaking noir. Dexter‘s characters, especially Train and Packard, are beautifully crafted and their relationship is a memorable work of art. In the author‘s hands, losers can be winners and the callous, deliberate cruelty inflicted on them by the elitist snobs who judge them without seeing them cuts deeply as they strive for small moments of dignity to balance out all of life‘s disappointments. The world Dexter creates is full of dark violence where light and goodness only occasionally bleeds through, but when it does, it is powerful and uplifting. This is a complicated book about emotional treks taken but rarely finished, and in it lies a truth about humankind that many writers are simply not brave enough to suggest to their readers. If you take this ride, you won‘t soon forget it.