'Night Train' Pulls Through Segregated South Clyde Edgerton's new novel, The Night Train, tells the story of two boys whose friendship is concealed due to a culture of racial segregation in the 1960s. Edgerton harkens back to his own childhood in North Carolina — the days when friendship between black and white children was culturally unacceptable — and asks what has changed in the past 50 years.
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'Night Train' Pulls Through Segregated South

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'Night Train' Pulls Through Segregated South

'Night Train' Pulls Through Segregated South

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Dwayne Hallston and Larry Lime are friends, and nobody knows. They work side by side, refinishing furniture in a store owned by Dwayne's father. And they both love the new music that's beginning to take hold of the country in 1963.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) All aboard. Yeah. All aboard. Yeah. All aboard the night train...

SIMON: Dwayne reveres James Brown, and performs his numbers with his own teen band, the Amazing Rumblers. Larry, whose full name is a Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe on Me Nolan, wants to play piano like Thelonious Monk. Together, they hatch a plan to have the Rumblers reproduce James Brown's "Live at the Apollo" album note-for-note, step-for-step, which Larry shows Dwayne.

Cheer, teach, and stand up for each other. In Starke, North Carolina in 1963, Dwayne, who is white, and Larry, who is black, have to keep their friendship concealed, like some family embarrassment.

That friendship forms the story of "The Night Train," the new novel - the 10th - by Clyde Edgerton. Joins us from WUNC in Chapel Hill.

Thanks so much for being with us.

CLYDE EDGERTON: I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: Is this story informed by your own experiences growing up in the '60s and, I gather, Durham?

EDGERTON: It certainly is on many counts. About that time, I was 19 and I joined a band - and that tall, lanky, blond headed boy wanted to be James Brown. And they were memorizing "Live at the Apollo," the album, and so I had to join in before I actually heard the album. That's when the album was just starting to be played, sometimes the full 35 minutes on black stations and white stations without pause, because there were no pause between songs.

Also, I had a friend named Larry Lime; not exactly a friend. He was an acquaintance. I would see him at the store near my home. And we would talk but we never became friends. We did play some basketball together. So I started using his name when I made up a character, temporarily. But when I was writing the book, I try to find him and couldn't. And so I said I'll just keep his name in there, maybe I'll come across Larry Lime down the road.

SIMON: It's interesting because you got a scene in your book, it's a heart piercing moment too, when Dwayne and Larry Lime are playing basketball. And Dwayne's father says to him - now, what's the phrase - it just don't look right.

EDGERTON: That's a scene very much out of my life. My father did ask me, when I was playing basketball in my backyard, if I would ask Larry Lime to leave. And you know, it's funny how memory works. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but it was interesting as a storyteller to be able to take that scene and recreate it and make something new out of it.

SIMON: Did you discover, as a novelist, things that you didn't realize as you were growing up in the '60s?

EDGERTON: Oh. Oh, yes. The whole question of segregation and race and, of course, when you're 12, 14 in a culture in which segregation is the norm, you are in many ways like cliched fish in the water. So in revisiting this scene now, I was able to think about the invisible effects of segregation on one relationship.

SIMON: Help us understand the importance of music.

EDGERTON: Well, it was just an amazing time, the late '50s and the early '60s. I remember listening to "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window."


PATTI PAGE: (Singing) How much is that doggie in the window...?

(Singing) How much is that doggie in the window...


EDGERTON: You know, the '50s? And that was a big song. and that was a big song.

SIMON: Patti Page, I think. right?

EDGERTON: Oh, it was right up at the top. And a few years later, along comes Little Richard.


LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom, Tutti Frutti, all rootie...


EDGERTON: Can you imagine having your radio on and driving along and you hear (Singing) how much is that doggie in - and then hear Little Richard? And then even later, James Brown.


BROWN: (Singing) Wow, I feel good...

EDGERTON: Even some Dixieland. A song called "Midnight in Moscow..."

SIMON: I remember that...


EDGERTON: Oh, what a great song.

SIMON: Kenny Ball, I think.


SIMON: Yeah, right.


EDGERTON: Music was a large part of my life. and it is a bit cliche, but it's a way people come together.

SIMON: Tell me about your bigot in this book.


SIMON: Almost a Central Casting villain named Flash Acres. But - but they're parts of me can't help but like.

EDGERTON: There's a part of me which rebels against the classic mean Southern racist who is nothing more than that. And so I had a chance with Flash to round him out a bit.

SIMON: We'll just explain he has an elderly infirm mother. And Flash, who is not a nice man, to all intents and purposes, is wonderful and touching and tender with his mother.

EDGERTON: I know very little if any shame in looking for what to write about, and my mother's illness - and she died in 2001 - was something I'd never translated into fiction. She wasn't at all like Flash's mother, but...


EDGERTON: ...to me anyway. But, certainly is one of the most memorable times of my life, so I had an opportunity to bring some of my experiences into a fictional context.

SIMON: 1963 was such an enormous milestone in so many ways for the world. You had the march on Washington - Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Of course, you had the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Is it important to you that people a generation, of I gather your students in North Carolina, realize what a different world they've grown up in because of what happened then?

EDGERTON: In writing about that time, I had to go back and read a lot. And I did realize, as you just mentioned, what a pivotal time that was. Now in my community in Wilmington, I go to classes - it's the second grade classes - and I watch black and white children play together as if there's no such thing as race. And then, of course, I watch them in high school and I think about kids who are teenagers and who are black and who are white and their chances at friendship and how it might be different than 1963, and in some cases I think it's not. But you hope that young people will read history and realize what happened and why it happened and think about it and see how that might influence and affect their lives with their neighbors.

SIMON: Clyde Edgerton, his new novel, "The Night Train." Mr. Edgerton, thanks so much.

EDGERTON: Thank you a lot, Scott.

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