Sometimes you walk through your days just putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you read a book the same way, page after page, measuring your progress by the diminishing thickness of the right hand side. But every now and then, when the book in your hand starts vibrating to the inner rhythms of your soul, your whole being can be restored, youthful and expectant.
I don’t know why or how this happens. My best guess has to do with the right book at the right time. This time it was Night Train, a 1986 novel by Todd Walton. As with many of the books I pick-up for a buck or two at used book stores, I hadn’t heard of the author. Noting that Mercury House, a small outfit here in San Francisco, is the publisher, helped lower my expectations to zero. The best way to start any book.
The first few chapters are fast. A beautiful woman in a black mini-skirt carrying an infant is running along Sunset Boulevard at 2:00 AM. She’s spotted by a very stoned guy driving a stolen caddy. He stops, picks her up and off they go on a wild chase up through California and eventually all the way to Oregon. Every time they stop to rest, hoping to hide, Lily’s pursuers catch up. She shoots one of them. Charlie kills another. They are not killers, merely desperate to find safety for themselves and the baby, and soon they’re desperately in love as well.
Walton punches out clean, clear descriptions of the action so fluidly that you barely notice at first how trippy this ride is going to be. The first clue is Jerry, the pot-growing hermit who is depressed about what he has learned about death, “nothing more than one energy field collapsing into another. The color changes. That’s all.” All he’s been waiting for, hidden away for years in the California coastal mountains, is for someone he can say goodbye to.
After a slew of encounters with marvelously eccentric characters, old friends of Lily or of Charlie, all putting themselves at risk trying to help them get away, the story evolves into a mythical quest for self-understanding and freedom, and the global liberation of artistic expression. They arrive at a collective in Oregon that seems to have been waiting for them.
Lily and Charlie both have music inside of them that the world needs to hear. Charlie sold his soul along with the best song he’s ever written a decade earlier. Lily’s musical talent, a voice with astounding capacity and the ability to play any instrument in front of her, seemed lost to her. She’d been a hooker, a drug addict and a slave to one of the most powerful women in the world – the one bankrolling the army of killers pursuing her.
Together, with the powerful resources of the Oregon collective backing them, Lily and Charlie are redeemed. They’re able to share their music with the world, yet freed from the shackles of fame. They’ve put their own lives on the line to accomplish their liberation, and they’ve watched others die in the process. Facing death is one of the lessons that frees them.
Escaping from California they had lost three friends, and killed four of their pursuers. They’d had little time to be haunted by the killings or to mourn their friends. Finally in Oregon, a one hundred and seven year old man named Junior, one of the leaders of the collective, teaches them about death by willingly sharing his own.
“One hundred and seven trips around that star,” he says, shaking a finger at the ceiling. “I was a psychoanalyst for seventy years. I think I helped three or four people.”
After describing the tingling sensation of his spirit disengaging from his flesh, a friend asks him how he got over his fear of death?
“Aw, shit, Jack,” says Junior, rubbing his nose, “I just did. It just went away completely. It was such a relief. It was like becoming weightless. Made the last thirty years a gas!”
“Death is life,” he continues, “We don’t like stories that don’t resolve themselves clearly, why should we want a life that just poops along? Death is a good way to go. Which is not to say I believe death is an end. It’s an ending, and I hope you know the difference. I’ve had a good run.”
Maybe it’s my hippie roots. Maybe it’s my odd detours into spiritual understanding. Or maybe it was the weed I smoked the night before I started the book. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for the forces of the universe that lined up when they did. Every chapter of Night Train dazzled me.
Better known for his first novel, Inside Moves which became an Academy Award nominated movie, Todd Walton wrote a few more books – reviews often describing him as a ‘Ken Kesey kind of writer.’ Then he moved up into the Redwoods of Northern California with a celebrated cellist. She plays in the Symphony of the Redwoods. He writes a weekly column for the Anderson Valley Advertiser.