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Downbound Train
By Carlo Wolff

The Drift
By John Ridley • Alfred A. Knopf, 275 Pages, $24

A phantasmagoric novel of the American underclass, John Ridley’s The Drift is engrossing if not altogether plausible. It is the story of Charles Harmon, a “yuppie scum” who fails to engage in marriage or work and drops out to become Brain Nigger Charlie, a rider of the rails. It is a story of loyalty, honor and discovery. It reads well, but its conceptualization is more successful than its execution.

As befits one who has written for television and the movies, Ridley has a knack for the visual; his evocation of the hobo life is convincing and his characterizations of the country’s soft (and sometimes hard) white underbelly smack of authenticity. But the book’s theatricalism undercuts the points Ridley seems to want to make, such as you can’t go home again, you can never transcend the class or race you’re born into, and family doesn’t always equate with kin. In addition, the resolution of the murders that pepper this road novel seems dissonant, even sexist.

Despite these flaws, The Drift is often riveting, particularly if you key in on Charlie rather than more superficially fascinating, lesser characters. Brain Nigger Charlie is “born” after Charles Harmon has a dream. Triggered by news from his wife, Beverly, Harmon drifts off to disturbing sleep:


The very night Charles was told of his wife’s pregnancy he had a dream of the unborn child. He dreamed it was a happy, healthy caramel-colored kid. With a third eye in its cheek. Other than that it was in the baby’s cheek, it wasn’t really a mutant eye. It was fully functioning. Didn’t roll around uncontrollably. Wasn’t deformed. It was a nice, normal third eye. But it was blue. Crystal blue, like one of the eyes of that baby at the incomprehensible end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A baby with a cheek-eye.

A black baby with a blue cheek-eye.

The dream drives Harmon first to drink, then to the psychedelic drug ecstasy and the animal tranquilizer ketamine, or Lady E and Lady K. He loses his job as an accountant and winds up hopping a freight, assuming the handle of Uppity Nigger Charlie before brutalization at the hands of “disenfranchised whites” belonging to groups such as the Freight Train Riders of America and their vicious competitors, the Nazi Low Riders.

He ultimately emerges, scathed and smarter, as Brain Nigger Charlie, a man with a mission: to discover Corina, the malapropism-prone, enigmatic niece of Chocolate Walt, the rail rider who taught Charlie how to survive. The search takes Charlie and his trusted weapon, George Plimpton, to rail yards around the country, to encounters with the nasty, brutish and tall and, finally, to a blend of self-realization and resignation.

There are spectacular scenes, and the dialogue can be authentic. Take this exchange between Charlie and Rat Dog Grady, a scabrous racist George Plimpton is besting:


I kept talking: “Here’s what I want to ask you: how’s a guy like you end up turning into a back-alley bitch by a couple of Home Guard?”

George had reopened the spigot on Rat Dog’s blood flow. It poured steady from his mouth. Couple of teeth came with the mix. “What do you care?”

“Don’t. I don’t care at all. But I’ve got hours and hours to fill, so I might as well do a little learning about your kind. I’m like a kid on a field trip to the white trash museum.”

With the help of a railroad detective both kindhearted and calculating, Charlie solves a series of rail-yard murders, thereby regaining some self-respect. Meanwhile, he also recognizes that the world is even less forgiving and even more brutal than he had thought.

Finally, Charlie achieves a kind of peace, and the drift—a wakefulness near nightmare, a sleep that never refreshes—fades. Ridley’s book, however, poses a question it fails to answer: Is Brain Nigger Charlie’s saga a journey toward enlightenment or merely a convoluted downer? Its ambivalence is disturbing but not sufficiently dramatic.

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