"The Train of Small Mercies" by David Rowell

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On a sweltering June day in 1968 a New York Central Railroad train traveled from New York to Washington carrying the casket containing the remains of New York’s recently assassinated senator, Bobby Kennedy. The train ran slowly and behind schedule, because of tragic accidents in New Jersey, and we learn of this in David Rowell’s remarkable and clever debut, “The Train of Small Mercies,” but this serves as backbone and binding arc to the vivid stories of a small but diverse group of ordinary Americans in the throes of living their own lives.

We glimpse these lives perfectly through Mr. Rowell’s versatile and energetic treatment. There is the young civil servant who has installed a pool in his back yard as a way of capturing some magic he feels must be fading from his life. We read of the fifth-grade boy recently returned to his home after being kidnapped by his father. A mother suffers when her daughter is injured in a fall; a clever and attractive would-be nanny assumes her interview with the Kennedy clan will not proceed; and the newly-hired NY Central porter spends his first day on the job on the funeral train; and perhaps most pointedly, a very young Vietnam veteran, just having returned home, must try to adjust to life after losing a leg in combat.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast to present this crystal-clear cross-section of America at that moment. Mr. Rowell takes on and very beautifully handles each of these diverse characters – their outlook and opinion, their strivings, their day-to-day concerns. There is just the right balance here of the timeless – two parents fretting over their injured daughter in the hospital – and the period-specific – the despair felt by blacks and other idealists in the face of the out-of-control violence in America, reeling from a third assassination in four-plus years, and the second in just a few months.

This is a balanced, mature work of fiction, which always takes me by surprise in a debut piece, somehow. Mr. Rowell snaps his shutter on a set of fictional events bound together by the Kennedy funeral train, and then steps back. He offers no solutions; each narrative is left almost as arbitrarily as it is taken up, and this strikes me as exactly correct. Mr. Kennedy, a hero only slightly less important to blacks than Reverend King, was killed before truly accomplishing any of the goals he had promised to his constituency, and the lives of mourning supporters and opponents alike are no less open-ended in our open-ended United States. I wonder if Mr. Rowell means the title in an ironic sense – not every set of characters enjoys a merciful turn in these events – they’re the minority, in fact. But running through each narrative is the thread of the redemption that people expected could come of Senator Kennedy’s efforts. And therein lie some of the yearned-for mercies. And certain of the characters simply hope their lives will benefit in more prosaic ways, and it is a very clear measure of Mr. Rowell’s success that we share the hopes right alongside them.

The author has provided a very apt and accurate portrait of America at a singular time, and in the process, has blessed us with an equally singular debut novel.

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